Ministers deny plans for May election but face calls to explain summit cancellation

Exclusive: Official envoy found out ‘en route’ to promote event in Africa, government admits

Kate Devlin
Tuesday 05 March 2024 20:07 GMT
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A minister has been forced to deny plans for a May election as the government faced calls to explain why a top diplomat was kept ‘in the dark’ over the cancellation of a major summit in April.

Rishi Sunak had been due to host political and business leaders from 25 different African countries at the gathering in London.

But it will not now be held at the end of April, a decision taken so abruptly the event’s official envoy was already on his way to visit the continent when he found out, ministers have admitted.

The revelation will add to growing speculation over an early poll.

Mr Sunak has previously said he wants to hold it in the second half of the year.

And asked on Monday if there was a “sniff” of a chance of a May general election, trade minister Mr Hands told Times Radio: “No.”

He was questioned over mounting speculation the PM could call a snap poll to coincide with local elections at the start of May, just weeks after the postponed Africa investment summit was due to have taken place.

In answer to questions from shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, ministers have now admitted the envoy, former British ambassador to Ethiopia, Dr Alastair McPhail, was only informed the summit had been delayed while “en route” to Rwanda to discuss it.

They blamed “scheduling issues in the international calendar" for its postponement.

But Labour has accused them of showing “blatant disrespect” to allies and called for an explanation.

The party says it is prepping for a May election amid fears the Conservatives will try to use the element of surprise to avoid a thumping from voters.

Rishi Sunak (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Shadow minister for trade Gareth Thomas said: "Whether or not this summit was postponed with a May election in mind, there has been no proper explanation for the decision, and now we discover that even the official envoy for the event was left in the dark about it.”

He added: “But as bad as that is, the biggest issue is not how David Cameron has sidelined his own diplomats, it is how our trade partners throughout Africa have been treated.”

"Treating countries who should be our friends with such blatant disrespect is not the way to promote mutually beneficial business deals. “

In a parliamentary answer, minister Leo Docherty said the “Envoy was informed of the postponement of the Summit on 29 January shortly after the decision was taken, at which point he was already en route to Rwanda."

He added that the decision had been taken “owing to scheduling issues in the international calendar".

The total cost of three-day trip to promote the event was £4,714 visit, the government said.

The Foreign Office declined to comment. A No 10 source said the working assumption was still an autumn election.

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