The people have spoken, at least those who vote at local elections. And the basic message is clear: ‘Tories out’. With rare exceptions, the Tories got battered up and down England, and while Labour aren’t at the heights they hit in the mid-90s the Tories are at the same depths. Two questions arise. When will we get an election? And will Rishi Sunak fight it?
On the second question, I think he almost certainly will. The Johnsonites in Parliament now number a small faction rather than a small army, and there is little appetite among the party to replace the leader yet again. Besides, the polls may be bad but Sunak’s ratings are better than his party’s.
Regarding when, the Fixed Term Parliament Act has been repealed and the Prime Minister has free reign to set a date, up to a point. That point is 28 January 2025. Unless the law is changed (or Princess Anne launches her long-awaited military coup) we have to have a general election by then.
There’s no incentive to call an election in 2023, before Sunak’s 5 Pledges can see any progress. This is particularly true on inflation, which is expected to drop regardless of government policy – but not for another few months. The question therefore becomes: How late will he wait?
The betting markets are very split on this question, with roughly evens available on both Sunak leaving office in 2024 and 2025 (or later). In 1992, 1997, and 2010, governments which expected a difficult night all called the election mere weeks before the deadline. But I think 2024 is significantly more likely than 2025, given the timetable a 2025 election would require.
British general election campaigns are fairly rapid, generally lasting only a few weeks (though the unofficial campaign runs for a couple of months beforehand). Even so, the only way to have a January 2025 election is either to call it immediately after New Years with a very quick campaign or to call it before Christmas 2024. Either way, with the January deadline known, Christmas 2024 would be dominated by campaigning.
In politics we often forget the human element. Politicians are people too, and you have to wonder if Sunak and his colleagues want to be with their families or out canvassing over the Christmas break? And even if they are willing, motivating volunteers to join you on those dark and freezing nights will be no fun at all.
Furthermore, a January election just reeks of fear. Everyone knows the Tories aren’t looking forward to the next election, but putting it off to the very last minute just rubs it in the public’s noses. There’s a reason the opposition pretended they were eager to fight an election in 2019, the alternative is telling the public you deserve an even bigger punishment (and are willing to intrude on their Christmas to slightly delay it).
We haven’t had a mid-winter election since the war, and politicians know the voters won’t thank them for one. In 2019 we voted in December, which was bad enough. But voters felt that the election had been forced by gridlock. If Sunak goes all the way to the wire everyone will know it was his choice.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tories hold off until late autumn 2024 to buy some more time for things to turn around. But 2025, while possible, is too tight a timetable to be likely. Starsports has 5/4 on Sunak to leave office in 2024, and 11/10 is widely available. I’m on at those odds.
Sunak could win an election, of course, but while Labour need 124 gains to win a majority Sunak probably can’t remain Prime Minister if the Tories lose more than 40-50 seats. Barring a miracle, that’s not something he can avoid. There’s a reason Starmer is barely 1/3 to be Prime Minister after the next election. Sunak should be much shorter than 5/4 to leave office in 2024 when that election will probably be held.
Pip Moss posts on Political Betting as Quincel. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts