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When will Rishi go to the polls?

27 October 2023
| by Field Team

What can a country achieve in 52 weeks? A recent quote from the PM seemed to hint the next Election will be in Autumn 2024, a time many in the lobby were predicting anyway. But it’s not the only option and Sunak has total control over the timetable all the way out to January 2025. With the King’s Speech around the corner setting out what the Government wants to achieve in the final year of the Parliament, Field’s Stephen Alton has taken a look at the pros and cons of four Election scenarios – so you can best prepare.

Snap election in Q4 2023

Most people are expecting the Prime Minister to go long – with the polls so out of his favour, most people think he needs the most time possible. But what if he gambles on a snap election to really take back initiative?

Labour would be on the back foot – with the expectation the Election will be next year, they won’t have prepared, their operations on the ground and nationally won’t be ready whereas the Conservatives could be silently preparing. Labour won’t have all their candidates in place and the Conservatives would benefit from incumbency in so many areas they are looking to defend – name recognition does usually give you a couple percentage points. 

Also on policy, arguably a snap election could be good for Conservatives – Labour have not fully fleshed out their policies and would have to do so on the fly with little stress testing. If the Supreme Court ruled Rwanda illegal, the Conservatives could bring back the 2019 spirit and fight an election seeking public support for overturning the ‘establishment’. The Supreme Court’s intervention in the prorogation debate in 2019 was hailed by many as something that helped turn people towards Boris, with them arguing it was the people vs the establishment. 

Nevertheless, a snap poll seems very unlikely – Sunak remains 15 points behind and the momentum is firmly in Labour’s hands with by-election victory after by-election victory, giving the public a sense of inevitability. The Conservatives may think the polls could get worse so go now, but going now would risk the seats of hundreds of Conservative colleagues and further tear divisions within the Party. Also, there is a reason everyone thinks it is too early – inflation is still high and Sunak may well miss his inflation target, and he hasn’t been able to point to any tangible way he has improved people’s lives. A winter election this year would suppress the Conservative vote as many have stayed home during by-elections, and they need more time to convince them to come back to the fold.

Finally, it’s cold and it’s almost Christmas – why ruin it? 

May 2024

From 1979 to 2017, every General Election was held in the Spring or early Summer – it is the accepted time to have them. Indeed, this coming May we have eight Mayoral elections including London, West Midlands and Greater Manchester as well as over 100 local councils. There is a reason why: elections are not just about the day itself, for weeks thousands of volunteers up and down the country are out everyday knocking on doors and delivering leaflets, and in late Spring the weather is good and bright (well… as much as we can expect in the UK). It therefore encourages higher turnout with a low chance of weather events that keep voters away such as heavy rain, floods and storms. 

The locals in 2024 will be a re-run of the elections that took place in 2021 (should have been 2020 but Covid scuppered that). In 2021, the Conservatives gained 235 council seats, and Labour lost 327. As such, with Labour high in the polls they will have a lot of seats that they can and should win. If they do, it will be a bad night for the Conservatives anyway which will further show huge momentum with Labour. Momentum matters, if the public see headline after headline of the Conservatives losing and disunited, it will harm them more. So some argue, why not have the General Election in May at the same time to avoid this ‘double hit’?

It also has the same benefit as a snap election – Conservatives retain an incumbency bonus in many seats and May gives Labour less time for their candidates to entrench themselves in their areas and less time for Labour to fundraise and develop policy. On the other hand, with some luck (and hopefully sound policy) inflation could have come down, they could have just announced tax cuts in the Spring Budget and the number of small boat crossings will be lower over the winter so the Government’s inability to reduce numbers will be less of an issue. 

Avoiding ‘going long’ also avoids the chance for Labour and Starmer to put the pressure on. The Opposition won’t just sit around and wait for Sunak to decide. They will pressure him and accuse him of fearing a public vote – especially for an unelected PM. Indeed, this hurt Gordon Brown a lot when he was accused of “bottling” an election in 2008, who was himself an unelected PM. However, spring is normally when NHS waiting lists are at their annual peak due to hangover from the winter and ultimately, it gives Sunak less time to turn the tide. Some sources claim his belief is that good governance and showing slow and steady progress is the key to his victory, which is why May still seems unlikely. 

October/November 2024

At the moment, this is the most likely option and the assumption of many within the SW1 bubble.

This option is arguably the sweet spot between giving Sunak time to make progress on the economy, small boats and the NHS whilst having relatively tolerable weather and conditions for him and his volunteers. Again, volunteers are key, and those who remember the 2019 Election won’t miss the cold and darkest evenings – voters also don’t want someone knocking on their door in the evening. Indeed, pre-1970s Autumn was actually the norm for elections, and it is the normal for many other countries like the US.

If you were to pinpoint a date, Thursday 24th October is the last Thursday before the clocks go forward, and we have darker nights. Although that date is during half-term, so a Thursday 17th October is also likely.

This would have some downside – Party Conferences would likely be cancelled or curtailed as you don’t want to divert your volunteers from the doorsteps, and they are a massive fundraiser. An idea has been floated that Sunak officially calls the Election on the conference floor at his speech in early October for a November election. Turnout will have some effect, as a slightly colder and possibly rainier Election day could put off some people from voting, which has historically helped the Conservatives as their older voter base are more likely to vote come rain or shine.

What really makes the Autumn the front-runner at the moment is the balance between time to enact the Government’s agenda and not leaving it too late to avoid poor weather and accusations of running from a fight. Sunak needs time to make progress on their priorities. In fact, it was a secret recording of the Chancellor which suggested the Election will be called once inflation falls below 3%, which is unlikely to happen (if at all) in the first half of 2024. Ultimately, having a year from now really gives the Government the time to not only govern but prepare for a tough Election which is why – at the moment – this is the likely option. 

January 2025

Turnout and weather can trim the fat on polls, but where the Election will be won or lost is do people feel better off with Sunak and whether or not they do will depend on what progress he has made on inflation, interest rates, NHS waiting lists and small boats. These are issues that will take time and time is Sunak’s best resource, so why not use it? Especially when you need time to select candidates, run campaigns and finalise messaging – the problem is more time for them is more time for Labour too.

He could feasibly go for the last possible moment to give him the time to make the changes he needs – as well as allowing the cash cow Conferences to go ahead.

However, we all know this is the last date he could go and by doing this he is showing fear and arguably running away from the electorate which in itself will paint Sunak in a bad light with voters.

A January Election, means a Christmas and New Year on the doorsteps – and nobody wants that. Whilst November 2024 seems possible, anything after is unlikely.

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