Preparing for disillusionment
Losing ground badly in the polls, facing more by-election defeats, and with Reform UK breathing down his neck, it is not surprising that Rishi Sunak wants to go for a late election, writes Eddie Ford
Not astonishing many people, during a visit last week to a youth centre in Mansfield, Rishi Sunak told journalists that it was his “working assumption” that the general election would be held in the latter part of the year - not the spring, as some want or hope. Looks like Suella Braverman or one of her co-thinkers on the Tory right will have to wait a bit longer to have a stab at becoming the new Conservative leader.
Of course, as all readers know, the exact date of the election is entirely in Sunak’s hands after the repeal in 2022 of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. Technically speaking, with December 17 2024 being exactly five years since parliament first met after the last general election, the latest date possible for the next general is Thursday January 23 next year.
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, has been going around recently saying a May election was “the worst kept secret” in Westminster. But she is just playing political games, of course, presumably trying to embed the idea that an earlier election was inevitable, so Sunak could then be accused of ‘cowardice’, should he go for a later election - which he appears to be doing. On the other hand, some conspiracy theorists believe the “working assumption” is a deliberate bluff to catch Labour out! The recent decision to hold the spring budget on March 6 inevitably excited speculation about an early election. Yes, it is true that 10 of the last 11 general elections have taken place in spring or early summer, six of these held jointly with local elections, thus reducing the costs. On this basis, the august Institute of Government claims that spring is the “likely date” for a general election.
Yet this is a slightly daft argument, as it leaves out the role of politics - quite an oversight for a body concerned with governmental matters. Naturally, various Labour shadow ministers have levelled rather pompous accusations against Sunak for his seeming decision to hold a late election - “running scared” “taking fright”, “hiding”, being “weak”, and so on. But why would a prime minister that some bookies currently rank as having a 10-1 chance of retaining his office voluntarily cut short his premiership by six months? Sounds like a pointless gamble - just look at the recent polls. For example, in a pretty representative survey taken only a few days ago. Labour was on 46% (+3), Tories 22% (-2), Lib Dems 10% (no change), Reform 9% (-1), Greens 7% (-1).1 Nearly all other polls have consistently shown Labour having a 20-point or more lead for quite a while.
At the end of the day, Sunak has not been in office very long and is clearly hoping Micawber-style that something will turn up, even if it has to be something fairly miraculous at this stage. What else can he do? More to the point, Labour would probably do exactly the same if it was in a similar position - ditto the Liberal Democrats. Making matters worse for Sunak, his election announcement could not have been timed worse, as he was speaking exactly one year after he declared his five pledges to the British people: halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing national debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and stopping small boats. Not going so well, is it, Rishi? Only one of these has been met, with the inflation rate falling from 10.7% to 3.9% in November, but that would almost certainly have happened anyway - nothing to do with governmental policy or the brilliance of the prime minister. Given these circumstances, over what would he call a snap election?
Meanwhile, in a desperate attempt to force events, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said at a rally in Surrey that his party would put forward a bill to reinstate legislation that requires a general election to be held on the first Thursday in May in the fifth year after the last polling day. Even Davey though has conceded that this attempt was a “long shot” - as in ‘never going to happen’, as it would require the backing of both the Tories and Labour.
Adding to the woes of the prime minister is the fact that he faces the possibility of three difficult byelections. Last week Chris Skidmore, the Tory MP for Kingswood and party whip, announced his resignation in protest over Sunak’s bill over new oil and gas licences, describing it as a “tragedy”. Labour looks likely to chalk up another victory in a seat that had an 11,220 majority in the last general election. Sunak also risks losing Blackpool South, as a by‑election looks very likely, with the sitting MP, Scott Benton, facing a Commons suspension for a “very serious breach” of standards rules - meaning that Labour should easily reclaim a seat that has a majority of less than 4,000 votes. A third by-election also hands Sir Keir another chance to win a seat that would have been beyond his party’s reach until recently - this time in Wellington, where Peter Bone was the subject of a recall petition after he was suspended from parliament (he was found to have bullied and harassed a member of staff). In its wisdom, the party chose his partner, Helen Harrison, as the candidate to replace him. Should Labour win Wellingborough where Bone had a 18,540 majority at the last election, which seems possible, it would immensely boost Starmer’s argument that he is cutting deep into Tory territory and on course to become the new prime minister.
Furthermore, even before those by‑elections are held, Sunak will be plunged back into a new row this week over his flagship Rwanda bill - now redesigned, at least allegedly, to ensure he can deport asylum-seekers to the east African state designated by the government as a ‘safe country’. Votes and amendments will take place later this month, and it might not go well for the prime minister - the bill could be voted down by members of the ‘five families’ stretching from the right to the left of the Tory Party.
If that was not enough for Sunak, he now has the looming shape of Reform UK - Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in a new guise. As the above YouGov shows, it has the potential to eat badly into the Tory vote. In fact, some polls have had Reform hitting the 11% mark - more than enough to do serious damage to any chance that the Conservatives might somehow get re-elected by an astounding quirk of the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Actually, when you look at Reform UK, the polling is quite remarkable in many ways, given that its chairman/leader, Richard Tice, is hardly a household name - unlike Farage, the party’s honorary president and recent participant in I’m a celebrity, get me out of here! That is why, when YouGov asked voters how they would vote if Farage was Reform’s leader, rather than Tice, the number went up to 14% and the Tory vote share went down by 1%. Of course, Reform - just like the Tories - is not a democratic organisation even on the most basic level: it operates as a limited company: hence whoever has the most shares calls the shots. That is why Nigel Farage can stage a comeback, as he does not have to rely on the rank and file, who no doubt would greet him with open arms anyway. But he has made a considerable investment in the party, just like Tice, who is a multi-millionaire businessman. As for the Tories, just look at their conferences - when has there ever been a vote? Indeed, you can say exactly the same about the bourgeoisie as a whole. The idea that it supports one-person-one-vote is entirely risible, no, it is one-share-one-vote.
Logically enough, this brings us to the Morning Star’s recent comments on Reform UK. Strangely, it tells us that the reason why Reform is doing so well is because of Sir Keir. Come again, do they ever look at the opinion polls or recent by-election results? This is all part of the silly leftwing narrative about Starmer being useless, which in its most extreme form says that he does not want to win the next election or become prime minister. Wake up, comrades - Labour is on 46%! As an analysis, blaming Starmer for Reform’s comparative success does not work. Yes, undeniably, Labour is furiously triangulating away, therefore broadly following the Tory agenda - especially on the migration question, which the Tories are pushing hard. But this is fertile ground for Reform, which has an easy reply to the Tories - you claim to be clamping down on the small boats, but look at the results. OK, they have gone down a bit recently, but historically they are at the highest levels ever. Of course, the real reason for this is that people used to come over by other means - such as on the back of trucks, or whatever. But never mind the facts.
Again, in the context of Reform UK, the Star worries that Britain is not immune to the far-right “contagion”. Look at the government: it is the far right! Have they not seen the pictures of Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni embracing in a “love-burst” because they have so much in common, particularly when it comes to immigration - with the Italian prime minister gushing to the British premier about how “your priorities are also mine”.2 She is a former fascist who is proud of those origins. Nor should we forget good old Call Me Dave Cameron in 2009 leaving the centre right bloc in the European Union parliament to set up a hard-right cum far-right populist bloc: the European Conservatives and Reformists.
Having said all that, it is important to remember that Reform is essentially a wing of the Tory Party, albeit in exile. Tice himself has been a donor and member of the Conservative Party for most of his adult life, his natural home, so it is quite right to be sceptical about his stated ambition of standing in every constituency to “make sure” that the Tories lose. Then there is Farage - another natural Tory, it goes without saying. Star visitor at the last Tory Party conference, dancing with Priti Patel at the evening ball, he might rejoin the Tories with a view to becoming leader - certainly not impossible.
On the assumption that we have a Starmer government this year, you can equally bet that it will not go swimmingly well - the NHS, schools, social services, etc will not find themselves awash with money. Sir Keir has promised it will not be like that, and there is no reason not to believe him - things will be grim and horrible, and this is without any major world event or external factors to make things even worse. People will quickly get fed up and those who had any illusions will lose them. As night follows day, that prepares the ground for an even more rightwing Tory Party - perhaps with Braverman or Farage at the helm.