Defeat delayed is not defeat defanged
Why Rishi Sunak should be wary of leaving the election too late
If Rishi Sunak has not called an election by this week next year, Parliament will be dissolved automatically. In that scenario, the next general election would take place on the last possible date – in January 2025. It’s a default position that Sunak might drift to. As Prime Minister, however, he ought to be wary of the risks of holding on, even if calling a poll earlier seems unpalatable.
Since the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, calling an early election remains within the gift of the governing Prime Minister. It is rarely invoked, however, when they are behind in the polls, especially when there is as much clear water as now. The temptation is to cling on, squeezing out as much time as possible in Number Ten. For the Conservative Party, however, that might prove an unnecessary and costly mistake.
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The reasons for holding out are a mixture of rational and hopeful. There is partly a basic instinct that politicians rarely relinquish power until they have no other option. Sunak and those around him won’t like handing over Downing Street before they have to, and will be emotionally reluctant to call an early election they believe will lose. Tied to this is another vague belief, the Micawberish trust that something will turn up to reverse the party’s fortunes.
More rationally, Number Ten are convincing themselves that 2024 might improve their chances. In Westminster circles, the idea of a fightback is predicated on two things. The first is that the economy will improve, and, in particular, wage rises will start to outpace inflation leading to a feel-good effect that might help the party. The second is that government action on small boats and migration might deliver a boost for the Conservatives’ social and cultural supporters. Nail both, the logic goes, and the polls will narrow, and better performance on other issues and a fair wind might budge things closer to being competitive.
It’s a seductive narrative for those currently in Downing Street. Time might heal things just enough for the party to push for a hung parliament, maybe even being the biggest party. Many of the assumptions, however, struggle under scrutiny.
Economically, the problem with inflation is that it is a measure of change, even if it is on target, prices are still rising. People listen to their pockets more than economic metrics, and the sting of things costing more is there even if the Treasury is celebrating good news. Across the Atlantic, it is plain to see this, with Biden struggling on economic issues despite most of the metrics pointing in the right direction. For Sunak, the cost-of-living crisis is already part of popular parlance, as is general horror about the price of things. It will be hard to shake this off.
The immigration issue will also be hard for him to fix. We are seeing now that the Rwanda legislation is tough to pass and will be tougher to implement. In a best-case scenario for the government, it will have little impact before even the latest possible poll date. The same is true of tightening regulations around legal migration. These will only come into force in the spring, and will only really impact the numbers from 2025 onwards as older applications filter through the system.
The reality for the Tories is that a year is a long time for things to go wrong, and a short time to try and do effective stuff in. Anything involving legislation will need to make speedy progress to even enter the statute book. For things where passage in both Commons and Lords will be fraught, there is almost no chance of it coming through. Even executive actions that require no further law will take time to develop and even longer to bear fruit. After fourteen years of government, the last lap is too late to make many major changes.
At the same time, running down the clock is filled with opportunities for things to get worse. Party infighting is likely to continue and will most likely intensify. As discontented MPs increasingly realise they are going to get buried in a Labour landslide, they have fewer incentives to play ball on anything. Either they hope by kicking back they might avoid the trend, or they simply lose interest in playing ball. Those who know they will be back no matter what will have an eye increasingly on the next leadership contest, whether as candidates or kingmakers. This makes them equally unlikely to pull together for Sunak. Rumbling disunity could drag the party further down.
Even aside from Westminster rigmarole, delaying the election raises further risks for the party. Sunak and his strategists might hope that something turns up, but there is every chance that those things are bad. The government is already being keel-hauled by the declines in public services. Further deterioration is almost certainly locked in - NHS waiting lists will not peak until August, for example – but there is an additional risk of some big conflagration where the government gets the blame.
The death this week of a migrant on the Bibby Stockholm barge shows how a problem can erupt from somewhere. With so many bits of the public estate at breaking point, the government is rolling the dice every day. Neglected railway maintenance could result in a crash. An understaffed prison could see a mass breakout or violent riot. Issues around crime could spiral into riots. There are all sorts of rare events that could blow up in the government’s face while they wait for things to improve.
Even without these calamities, an unpopular government can make things worse simply by dragging them out. The polls show people are ready for a change, with metrics like the chance of tactical voting suggesting a wide chunk of voters simply hate the Tories. The more people want an election, the more the lack of it can fire them up. Rather than the polls coalescing, the sense that Sunak is holding out for something could bake in his unpopularity.
Beyond this is a question of momentum. Known as “The Big Mo’” in US elections, or characterised byas the “strong horse theory”, winning begets winning and losing begets losing. As Starmer looks more and more like a PM in waiting, and Sunak like a man on the out, the cycle will reinforce it. This hits you both in terms of appearances and campaigning realities.
First, as a politician, everything you do is filtered through people’s perception of you. They are forgiving when they like you, furious when they don’t. In the media and out among the electorate, popularity means you are playing on easy mode. Sinking, however, intensifies everything. This is a problem for Sunak in particular who is so easy to attack on certain things – his tetchiness under pressure, the sense he is out of touch, the weakness of his control of the party. Each of these will increase the longer he holds out as an unpopular PM.
It also has practical implications. When you are doing well as a party, everything becomes a bit easier. People enjoy being out on the doorstep or in the campaign centres. Voters become members, members become more active and your resources are bolstered. So goes the opposite. There’s a real chance that after two years of being battered in the polls, getting a kicking in local and by-elections, the fight goes out of the Tory Party and they struggle to muster what they need on the ground. As I’ve written before, this matters hugely to the final outcome.
Delaying to the very last could make this even worse. There are two assumed periods for elections in this country: the traditional May, and the back-up October. Anything outside of these tends to be an emergency. For Sunak, pushing back past the Autumn would look desperate and would likely leach out the sort of squatting sentiments that plagued Gordon Brown when he sought to form a government after the 2010 results. It would look like an unpopular leader holding on way past the point he should depart – something that would make the inevitable election worse.
On top of that, a last-ditch poll would sow another sort of electoral chaos that the Tories would likely get the blame for. Early January is a particularly awful time to hold an election. Firstly, it is dark and cold, bad for campaigners and bad for voters. There would be a sense that the Tories were trying to stymie turnout, which would probably further motivate those who were against them. There would also be a risk of practical problems for which the government would get further blame.
The combination of Christmas and New Year would cause problems for various aspects of the election. Due to the number of Bank Holidays in the election period, nominations would have to close a day or two after the election was formally called, pushing an artificially tight timetable on returning officers and candidates. Ballot papers would have to be printed over the New Year, with postal votes getting caught up in the usual Christmas issues with the mail. The government would likely shoulder the blame if a few hundred thousand went missing in the rush, or some key seats fell into confusion.
The timing of the election will be hanging around Rishi’s neck for a while now. In truth, with a poll deficit like the current one, there are few good options. Going early looks like giving up. Waiting longer gives you a hypothetical opportunity to salvage things but far more chances for things to go wrong – especially as so much about the next year is baked in from decisions already made.
The timing may not matter much to who wins, but it could to the details of the outcome, and thus to the future of the Conservative Party. Keeping hold of two hundred seats looks and feels very different to limping across with 150 or fewer. The timing could be critical to where the numbers end up. There is a chance that delay does unearth something to help the party fight back. Every day, however, it runs the risk of something else going wrong, the infighting circling again, and the public growing angrier.
There’s a dream scenario for the Tories, where steady progress and some unforeseeable bonus lift them back to contention. It's tempting to pin hopes on that fantasy. The reality is that multiple resets have failed to make any impact, that deferring runs the risk of other things going wrong, and a public anticipating change gets angry about waiting for it. Jumping is bold, holding back could just be accepting further erosion.
The worst case for Sunak is perhaps prevaricating until he runs out of road. If he hits the default buffers of a January 2025 poll, it looks unprincipled and uncontrolled. It accumulates all of the bad will and throws on top of it the potential disorder of an election unravelling over Christmas. Instead, he has to walk a fine line, between keeping the window open for a turnaround and making things worse for his party and his successor. There is probably no best time for him to pick, but running out of time seems worst of all.