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Forget the General Election timing games, we're going to the polls in May 2024

Keir Starmer has just launched his five missions for the country. It follows Rishi Sunak’s five promises to the country last month. Anyone else think we are heading into a General Election?

Typically in the public affairs world we would be preparing for the final few weeks of the municipal year before the purdah period starts and attention would start to turn to the final 12 months before the General Election.

The last (and first) King’s Speech in the state opening of parliament in May gives us an indications of what Bills will be prioritised and form the basis of the government’s re-election campaign. The last autumn statement of the term is usually used to bury bad news and the last budget next March is often littered with giveaways for the marginals.

However, such has been the frequency and the Machiavellian chicanery that has gone into calling two of the last three elections, many have dismissed next May as the date of the next election. Of course legally the PM can wait until January 2025 before holding the vote. Many have believed he would go for another winter election as it so suited the Conservative voter in 2019. All apparently more preferable than the traditional first Thursday in May.

I’d suggest that sooner rather than later is Sunak’s preferred choice.

You see, the most immediate threat to Sunak’s premiership isn’t actually Keir Starmer. It is Boris Johnson

It won’t have escaped people’s notice that the former prime minister but one, has made two interventions in the last week. Johnson’s commentary on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and then the first anniversary of the Russian war in Ukraine are anything but accidental.

Johnson is calculated. And his calculation is that Sunak is approaching 6 months in the job and he has failed to make even the most modest dent in the Labour poll lead. With local elections 70 days away, the news is going to get worse before it gets better for Sunak.

The fall out from the local elections this year is likely to be severe.

Labour will take control of the LGA this time round and in red wall seats, the Tories are struggling to even find enough candidates to stand. June to conference will be tough and he will need to get the support of those in his cabinet who are themselves vulnerable at the ballot box. People like Dominic Raab who is on course to lose his seat to the Liberals. So too Jeremy Hunt the Chancellor who is litter picking the streets of Godalming most weekends in a bid to sway the swing voters. All the whilst keeping the 40 red wall backbenchers believing he can turn things round.

And even with shoots of economic recovery by the autumn, will it be enough to stop the swell of suggestions that “one last throw of the Boris dice” could be enough to arrest the slump and get the Tories to pull off a general election victory?

The grandees seem suitably worried that this could happen.

Lord Gavin Barwell is taking to the airwaves to launch blue on blue attacks on known Boris backers like Simon Clarke. Sitting Conservative MPs are being de-selected from their seats as punishment for not backing Boris. It's turning very nasty, very quickly.

The Conservative party conference did for Liz Truss last year. Row backs on policy announcements, donors and lobbyists opting for Liverpool instead, the media in a frenzy smelling blood…all of this could be repeated in the autumn if Sunak hasn’t seriously proven he can change his party’s fortunes around.

Then consider the following. If Sunak waited for the autumn or winter of 2024 he would need to…

  1. ride out another budget which could see further public sector cuts and more strikes. Polling proves the public sympathy is for the workers not the billionaire PM. Can he really turn public opinion against the nation’s nurses?

  2. contemplate further delays to social care reform, which was a flagship manifesto commitment from the Conservatives and it won’t be tolerated by their elderly base of supporters. The longer it is kicked into the long grass, the less support they can rely on.

  3. navigate the local elections in 2024 which will see an artificially high number of Conservative Councillors up for re-election. Most Councillors won their seats in 2021, riding on the crest of the vaccine rollout wave. A brutal night of Tory Councillors’ dispensed of their services and Rishi will face even more unrest in the ranks.

  4. stomach the London Mayor and serval of the Metro Mayors being up for election in May 2024 with Labour potentially sweeping everywhere including the West Midlands. This creates a powerful bloc of politicians who can continue to ask how the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda has panned out, five years on.

  5. survive another year of Brexit impacts, sleaze, scandal, cabinet sackings, questions about his personal finances…not to mention the potential for the war in Ukraine to be putting further strain on fuel and energy bills.

Waiting it out would be agony not strategy. He needs to be decisive and he will ultimately listen to the civil service who will advise him that the King will expect the dissolution of parliament in Spring 2024.

It’s why he is more likely to opt for a May 2024 general election. Say what you will about the Conservative Party but they are the most ruthlessly efficient election winning machine that anyone has ever seen in western democracies. A rallying cry just after Christmas to get behind him, unite, back a budget for the marginals that is out of the George Osborne playbook for political landmines for Labour and go with him to the polls in May, will keep Johnson from the famous black door.

Sunak isn’t as Machiavellian or political as Johnson. He is more traditional. So forget the games and the political calculations that get pundits their 5 minute slots on GB News. As we prepare for the penultimate purdah next month, get ready for the final year of this turbulent parliamentary ride.


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