How Labour Plans To Goad 'Bottler' Sunak Into Calling A Spring Election

The prime minister faces a nightmare dilemma in 2024.
Rishi Sunak has to decide when to go to the country.
Rishi Sunak has to decide when to go to the country.
Damon Scheleur/HuffPost

Rishi Sunak this week confirmed what the world and his wife already knew - the general election will take place next year.

Addressing political journalists at a Christmas reception in Downing Street, the PM said the country would go to the polls in 2024, apparently ruling out January 2025, the latest date it could possibly be.

The only question that remains is whether he will go to the country in the spring or in the autumn.

Number 10 had already appeared to let slip the election date in October when a video marking Sunak’s one year anniversary as PM declared: “So what can a country achieve in 52 weeks? Watch this space.”

But HuffPost UK has learned that Labour plans to accuse the “weak” PM of “bottling it” if he chooses not to plump for a May election.

As luck would have it, local elections in England are due to take place on May 2.

The last time those seats were up for grabs was in 2021 when, thanks largely to the success of the Covid vaccine rollout, the Tories performed well.

With the opinion polls now unrelentingly grim for the Conservatives, the expectation at Westminster is that those elections will be another bloodbath for the party, reminiscent of last May when they lost over 1,000 councillors.

Why would Sunak, the theory goes, put his grassroots activists through that miserable experience only to ask them to get out on the doorsteps again just a few months later?

Holding the general election on the same day as the locals could also help to boost the Tories’ chances of saving some councillors who would otherwise have been booted out by voters, say some.

One senior Conservative said: “My preference would be for a spring election. Have a radical tax-cutting Budget in March and then go to the country. We’ve got nothing to lose so might as well.”

Keir Starmer, who visited the Tapa NATO forward operating base in Estonia this week, has urged Sunak to get on and call an election.
Keir Starmer, who visited the Tapa NATO forward operating base in Estonia this week, has urged Sunak to get on and call an election.
Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images

One ally of Keir Starmer said: “The country is crying out for change and voters are desperate for the chance to kick the Tories out.

“If Sunak doesn’t call an election for May then it just shows he’s weak and a bottler. We’ll just spend months hammering home that message.”

Visiting British troops in Estonia close to the border with Russia this week, Starmer said Labour was “ready” for an election.

I’ve had my whole team on a general election footing for some time now,” he said.

“Given the complete state of failure now in the country, there’s a real sense that everything is broken, nothing is working,” he told GB News.

“For millions of people they can’t afford to wait any longer for that general election. The sooner that is called, the better. We’re ready for it.”

The counter-argument, however, is a strong one. Why on earth would Sunak choose to have an election in May when the Tories are likely to still be anything up to 20 points behind Labour?

Former chancellor George Osborne said on his Political Currency podcast said a spring election has already been ruled out by those around Sunak.

“I’ve been talking to various people…and so all my conversations do indicate to me that they [Downing Street] are looking at the back end of next year,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone at the top of the Tory party is now thinking that a spring election, a May election, is a running possibility. And even an October election is not really on the cards because they’ll be thinking of using September, October to launch what is more likely, in my view now, to be a November, December election. But it will be in 2024.”

Delaying the big day for another 12 months risks invoking the wrath of the public, however.

HuffPost UK revealed in October that polling by the More in Common think-tank revealed that three-quarters of voters want an election by the spring, with only 15% preferring next autumn.

Luke Tryl, More in Common’s UK director, said: “While it’s understandable that Rishi Sunak will want to wait as long as possible to call an election in the hope that Conservative prospects might improve, our polling suggests that waiting too long may, in fact, have the opposite effect.

“A weary public is not in the mood for a 12-month plus General Election campaign and overwhelmingly would like an election over and done with before next summer.”

Faced with the choice of near-certain defeat in the spring and an extra six months as prime minister, all logic suggests Sunak will choose the latter option.

But is he buying himself more time in the hope that something comes up to change the Tories’ fortunes or simply delaying the inevitable?


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