Rishi Sunak has essentially ruled out a May election, telling reporters on his trip to Mansfield today that “my working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year”.
His comment comes after fevered speculation over the Christmas break that the government was preparing the ground for a spring election (coinciding with the local and mayoral elections in England on 2 May). The biggest hint was Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that the Budget would be held earlier than usual, on 6 March, which followed his decision to introduce the 2 per cent cut in National Insurance in January rather than at the start of the tax year in April.
As I wrote on Tuesday, there are obvious reasons why the government would prefer a spring election to an autumn one, all things being equal. It would enable Sunak to look decisive, and means going to the polls before a million more households have to remortgage at higher interest rates and Channel boat crossings dominate another summer. But all things are very much not equal – and as long as the Tories continue to trail Labour in the polls by around 18 points, Sunak is not going to gamble on an election he seems almost certain to lose. That’s why, though Labour has encouraged speculation over a May election, Tory MPs have been decidedly less convinced.
It was, of course, in the government’s interests to keep the possibility of a May election alive – both so it had the option to go early if circumstances suddenly changed, and for reasons of party management. But that increased the risk to Sunak of being called indecisive and a “bottler” if he failed to do so.
Today, the Prime Minister seems to have concluded that the risk is too great and decided to end the speculation. His intervention had the added bonus of knocking Keir Starmer’s New Year’s speech, in which the Labour leader promised a “decade of national renewal” if his party is elected, off the top of the news agenda.
But to some degree the “bottling” narrative may have already set in. Both Starmer and Lib Dem leader Ed Davey have cast Sunak as a “squatter” in No 10 and accused him of dithering and “running scared”. The “bottler” line came to haunt Gordon Brown after he decided against an election in 2007, and may do the same for Sunak this year.
Ultimately, though, rows over timing will not be the decisive factor. The next election will be fought over defining policy areas such as the economy and public services: do people feel better or worse off now than in 2019, can they get a doctor’s appointment, and how much are strikes disrupting their lives? Sunak still needs to meet four of the five pledges he made this time last year (the only one that he has achieved so far is halving inflation). No wonder he told reporters that he had “lots to get on with”.
[See also: Can Keir Starmer restore faith in politics?]