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A curious thing happened last week. Asked by journalists about the timing of the next general election, Rishi Sunak said: “My working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year.”
In some ways, the revelation was not a surprise.
The Prime Minister must call a poll at some point before the end of this year (and it must be held by the end of January 2025), and commentators had seemed evenly split about whether he would do so before the summer or after it.
Nor was this a spontaneous announcement from Sunak: Westminster insiders had known the news for some days beforehand.
And yet, it was intriguing in two specific ways.
Sunak’s language – “working assumption” – implied that it was somewhat beyond his control, when in fact he has an absolute prerogative to request the election from the King any time he chooses. And he actually kept the door open for a spring election even while appearing to reject it: a “working assumption” can, of course, be subject to change.
What is going on?
In terms of political guesswork, 2 May had been gathering momentum as a likely date. Shortly before the New Year, the Government announced that the budget would be held on 6 March, earlier than usual. The theory went that the Chancellor might announce a series of giveaways – a major cut or abolition of inheritance tax, say, coupled perhaps with a cut to income tax. The Prime Minister would then immediately proffer that for public endorsement before the plans had a chance to unravel or be exposed as ideologically flawed or economically undeliverable.
The 2 May date would also coincide with the local elections, and so (besides the convenience) also offer a crumb of advantage to the Conservatives: that the narrative of a drubbing at those local elections would not then pursue the Prime Minister for a further few months until the next public vote. In politics it is better to be presumed a massive vote-loser than to have it confirmed.
The alternative theory, now in the ascendant, runs that Sunak wishes to let tax cuts bed in, wait for the economy to improve, and perhaps see a reduction in the number of small boat crossings. Of course, none of this would be guaranteed. The public might have forgotten about the tax cuts (or been reminded about associated cuts to public services), and the economic situation could be worse. It also strengthens Labour’s charge that Sunak is ‘bottling’ an election, as Gordon Brown did to his cost in 2007.
Perhaps Sunak simply wants to stay in office for as long as possible. The date of 14 November is reportedly circulating in Westminster.
None of this is a good way to run a country.
Sunak’s ambiguity has not dampened speculation but fuelled it. Amid global turmoil and an ongoing cost of living crisis, this year’s focus will not be on the key issues facing ordinary people but on the timing of the election. The speculation will suck up the political oxygen for the next 11 months. It promises both to dominate and numb us.
That anaesthetisation is good for one person alone: the Prime Minister. While he runs down the clock to his (almost) inevitable ejection from office, he has the opportunity to keep the country guessing, continually drop fresh hints, and make use of all the ‘wiggle room’ that he can.
It offers him the perfect distraction from the incompetence of his Government. As Sunak’s authority and public approval crumbles around him, this is the one definitive bit of power remaining to him, and he seems determined to enjoy it.
This also requires journalists to engage in a task equally thankless, undignified and futile: to probe the inner workings of Sunak’s mind. We do not know what Sunak wants and we are not entirely sure that he does either.
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Does the Prime Minister actually enjoy his job? Does he want another five years of power, which if (by some miracle) he were to win it would almost certainly involve the slimmest of majorities and a return to the fractious chaos of the John Major years? Does he, as is widely suspected, in fact want to leave office and seek even greater wealth in the California tech sphere?
The problem is not that we don’t know, but that we have to ask these questions at all. This should not be about what the Prime Minister wants.
It is yet another absurdity of Britain’s patchwork democracy that its leader has the ability to call an election entirely at a moment of their choosing.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011, which removed that prerogative until its repeal in 2022, was (by common consent) flawed, but at least bestowed the fundamental power of calling elections onto Parliament rather than the Prime Minister. It would have been entirely possible to enact new legislation which forced a prime minister to secure the approval of the House of Commons before requesting a dissolution, but the Government rejected a Lords amendment to that effect, and Conservative MPs duly voted it down. As such, the UK’s uncodified constitution of gentlemen’s conventions continues unhindered.
In the end, perhaps, it doesn’t much matter when the election comes. Whether in May or November, the public will issue its judgement and the Conservatives will feel it. In the meantime, the Government will continue its paralysis – and inflict it on everyone else.