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A Political Marathon 2024: The Longest General Election Campaign in History



I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the chessboard of UK politics is about to see a move never before witnessed. It’s one thing to predict a May 2024 General Election, but the real question is: How early will the starting gun go off? I'll put it on the table – Rishi Sunak might very well be gearing up to instigate the longest general election campaign in British history.


Under UK legislation, general elections span a neat 25 working days – five weeks. But laws are just starting points for the creatively inclined. Sunak, taking lessons from the unscripted playbook of Boris Johnson, might just be plotting an eight to nine-week marathon.


Here’s why.


Local Elections 2024:


Rishi Sunak has performed badly in the 2023 local election. He was the Conservative Party leader that presided over a huge defeat for the party in May and saw Labour regain control of the Local Government Association as the largest party in Local Government, for the first time since 2006.


In May 2024 the results will be worse. This set of elections will see the seats that were previously defended in 2021 contested. In 2021 the elections had been postponed by 12 months due to the pandemic and Boris Johnson enjoyed a moderately successful night as the government was rewarded for the furlough scheme and the vaccination roll out. This means there are a high number of Conservatives who are at risk of losing their seats in the re-election.


And it is worse than that as well. Across the country there are not only elections to councils, but there are crucial Metro Mayor elections in places like the West Midlands and Tees Valley where the Tories will need to hang on and hang on strongly. Couple this with new Metro Mayors being elected in places like North Yorkshire in Sunak’s own back yard and in the East Midlands, there is a real chance that Labour may take a full sweep of Metro Mayors in a hammer blow to Sunak and his devolution agenda.


If the Tory Councillors (foot soldiers) are ousted from office in May and the morale in the camp is at rock bottom, it is hard to see how he turns the party round inside three months before an autumn election.

In fact, this leads to his second biggest issue. The 1922.


1922 Committee


Barely a year passes now without the powerful Tory 1922 Committee making headline news. The year 2023 has been quiet for them, but it won’t be for long.


Sunak has now gone past the 12 months stay of execution, meaning a contest can now be launched against him for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Whilst you require 100 MPs to trigger the contest now, it isn’t inconceivable that many backbench Conservatives analysing Sunak’s performance in the 2023 and 2024 local elections, as well as in the polls where he has stayed largely in the same place as Liz Truss, and decide it is better to roll the dice for six months with another person. Names such as Michael Gove and James Cleverly are already being spoken about in Tory circles as possible candidates to replace him before any autumn election.


This is a real consideration for Sunak, because politics is about strategy and survival, and the Conservatives are known for swift leadership changes if needed.


Politics is about strategy and survival, and the Conservatives are known for swift leadership changes if needed.

Small Boats


Then there is the timing. With winter approaching now and storms hitting our shores, the chances are that the number of small boat crossings will drop significantly over the next six months. This gives Sunak some political cover to say his policies are working and he has gripped the crisis. Compare this to an October election where the summer months have been full of stories of more and more migrants travelling to UK shores on small boats, and suddenly he doesn’t have the narrative of control, but more chaos.


Inflation & Cost of Living


In fact, the longer he leaves things, the more chaotic it is likely to become. Inflation remains stubbornly high and could rise, not fall, considering the attack on Israel from Hamas. The Arab world is watching, and the price of crude oil has risen to over $88 a barrel. This effects energy prices and petrol prices. Can Sunak really wait another 12 months and hope that these rises stop? War in Europe and the Middle East show no signs of abating, but intensifying.


Alongside the cost of living, the Government now must make a decision on state pension and benefit increases for 2024/2025. Do they raise these costs in line with 6.7% inflation or in the case of benefits, raise them at a lower level and recognise that many Red Wall voters will be worse off as a result?


Add into all of this, the ongoing crisis in school buildings, the bankruptcy that is crippling councils in every region of the country, an NHS waiting list pushing 8 million, strikes, rail line upgrade abandonments, dangerous prisoners being released because of overcrowding, police not investigating serious crime, children being stabbed to death on the streets of our major cities and the country is getting worse, not better the longer it is left.


Mortgage Rates


We also cannot forget that circa 16,000 homeowners a month are coming off of their fixed rate mortgages and having to renegotiate a mortgage rate that was once sub 2% but it’s now closer to 6.5% with possible Bank of England increases needed to drive down inflation over the winter. Every month that passes, more people pay a higher price for their home.


Budget


All of this also fails to negate the other issue that Sunak has; his parliamentary party has a loose appreciation of basic economic competency. We saw over the summer the re-emergence of Liz Truss and Nigel Farage as the clear force behind the Tory parliamentary party. They called for the cancelling of the HS2 railway line, and Sunak obliged. The one area that neither he or Jeremy Hunt the Chancellor has so far been willing to budge on, is the issue of pre-election tax cuts.


This poses a dilemma for Sunak. Does he take a Budget to the House of Commons with tax cuts in it, knowing that the reality is, if he goes too hard to appease his backbenchers with a programme of tax cuts he cannot realistically deliver, market confidence will crumble once again? Or does he offer some moderate tax cuts, promises for two or three years down the line, and risk a rebellion in his ranks with amendments tabled to the budget that sees him lose total control?


There is of course a third option, which I think is more likely and where I come back to my belief that we will have the longest election campaign in history.


I don’t think Sunak will bother with a Budget. Instead, I think he will dissolve parliament at the end of February, beginning of March and launch a huge election campaign that will span eight to nine weeks.

"But why?!" I hear you mutter in exasperation. It's simple: Perception. Control. Domination.


Media


Sunak, the media maestro, is likely betting on the Conservative-leaning media outlets, like The Sun, The Times, GB News and The Telegraph, to weave a golden narrative around him over an extended campaign period. With such an extended spotlight, Sunak can hope to pivot the discourse, shoring up Reform voters and wooing middle England back into the Conservative fold.


Spending power


In the game of power politics, money talks. The Conservatives have surreptitiously upped the election spending limit to £36 million. But remember, this cap only kicks in during the "short campaign". Before this period? The sky's the limit. Prepare to see a bombardment of Tory adverts, carefully curated social media campaigns, and perhaps a dash of good old-fashioned misinformation.


We know they are more sophisticated with social media targeting than any other party in the UK and, as Keir Starmer said in his conference speech, “Wherever you think you are drawing the line, the Tories already have a plan to cross it.”


Let’s remember that in the 2019 General Election, they changed their official twitter account during a live TV debate to ‘FactCheckUK’ to confuse the audience.


Labour is not ready


Let's also be candid: Labour's not quite at the races yet. With no candidates in over half the constituencies and a lack of clarity on sitting MP futures, they're on the back foot. The Tories? They're ahead of the game, likely to have their entire candidate lineup locked in before the Christmas crackers are pulled.


Slip Ups


Then of course, there is the prospect of slip ups, or as Harold Macmillan famously said, “Events, dear boy, events.”


Ask Harold Wilson. In 1970 he was on course to beat Ted Heath until the Bank of England dropped a bombshell trade deficit announcement and a few weeks later he was out of Downing Street. Or in the 2016 Presidential election when FBI Director James Comey announced days before America went to the polls that Hillary Clinton was being investigated for possible corruption.


Then there is the TV debates – remember President Bush Senior checking his watch during a debate with candidate Bill Clinton before the 1992 election? Or on the stump. Who can forget Gordon Brown and Mrs Duffy, the ‘bigoted woman’ in 2010. The EdStone in 2015, the ‘dementia tax’ in 2017 and perhaps most pertinent of all before this election, Neil Kinnock’s declaration ahead of the 1992 election that “We’re alright” in a pre-election rally in Sheffield.


The longer it goes, the more chance of ill-discipline and gaffes. Recent phenomena would suggest the UK likes longer elections too. The 2017 election lasted 7 weeks and the 2015 and 2019 elections were 6 weeks. All three were advantageous for the Conservatives.


“Events, dear boy, events.”

What we know about Sunak is that he thinks politics is 90% image. His Instagram videos are ready before parliament even has a whisper of what’s coming. A longer general election campaign makes the focus about him, not the party. It enables him to talk directly to the country, not deal with his party’s idiosyncrasies. It forces scrutiny of Labour policies and plans that the Tories believe has been lacking in recent times and it also runs the risk of boring the country so much, that they opt to stick with better the devil they know.


Strap in, Britain. This election is going to be a rollercoaster ride, longer and wilder than any we've seen before. And trust me, you're going to want to stay buckled in for every twist and turn.




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