Could we be heading for a winter general election?

Rishi Sunak may be considering going to the country after the local elections on 2 May – but John Rentoul thinks he will decide against it

Saturday 20 April 2024 16:34 BST
In my view, most of the elections to be held on 2 May are a write-off for the Tories
In my view, most of the elections to be held on 2 May are a write-off for the Tories (AP)

The local elections on 2 May were going to spell the end for Rishi Sunak, according to the handful of plotters against him among Conservative MPs. They warned that he might even call a general election to forestall a leadership challenge.

Now some of the prime minister’s own people are speculating that he might call a general election after 2 May for the opposite reason – not because the results will be disastrous, but because they will be surprisingly good. If Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, and Ben Houchen, the Tory mayor of Tees Valley, are re-elected, the argument goes, Sunak should cash in on the good news before the inevitable attrition of events resumes.

“You have the ­element of surprise while, if you wait until the autumn, you’ve basically boxed yourself in and allow Labour to attack you for hanging on,” a Downing Street source told The Times.

Rishi Sunak says he hasn't decided when general election will be

Before we come to whether or not this is a persuasive argument, however, we need to assess the chances of Sunak being able to claim the local elections as a good result for the Conservatives.

In my view, most of the elections to be held on 2 May are a write-off for the Tories. They will lose a lot of local council seats and the BBC will calculate a low “projected national share” of the vote – although it won’t be as low as it could be, because Reform, the former Brexit Party, is contesting only one seat in seven. Most of these seats were last contested in 2021, when Boris Johnson was riding the vaccine bounce and Labour lost its safe Hartlepool seat in a parliamentary by-election.

There will be a by-election at the same time as the local elections this time, too, but Labour’s Chris Webb is so certain to win Tory-held Blackpool South that the party is sending its resources elsewhere.

Susan Hall, the Tory candidate for mayor of London, will lose badly to Sadiq Khan, although not as badly as London’s current status as a Labour city would suggest.

There are three contests to watch elsewhere: Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, and Jamie Driscoll, the independent (formerly Labour) mayor of North of Tyne, who is running for the new, bigger mayoralty of the North East.

Opinion polls published in the past few days have suggested that Street and Houchen can win – Street was 14 points behind in one poll, three points behind in another;* Houchen was tied with Chris McEwan, his Labour opponent, in the only representative poll so far in Tees Valley.

Street is campaigning in green and purple colours, with little Conservative branding, proving that an independent-minded mayor with good name recognition can buck the national trend. (Before Labour partisans accuse him of being embarrassed by his party, they should note that Andy Burnham is running for re-election in Greater Manchester as “Andy”, without any Labour branding.)

Street’s slogan, “Lots Done, More To Do…”, is an example, borrowed from Tony Blair in 2001, of the kind of campaign that Sunak wanted to run in the general election, had he not been weighed down by the 14-year Tory record and the ill-judged five promises he made last year.

Even so, if Street and Houchen win, it will suggest there is some life in the Tory parrot yet. And if Driscoll wins in the North East, it will make the case that support for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is lukewarm – more an anti-Tory reflex than a positive vote for change. Driscoll is a soft Corbynite who was excluded without explanation by Labour HQ from running as the official Labour candidate for the new mayoralty.

These are the kind of arguments that I believe Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, is urging Sunak to consider. If the Tees Valley result on Friday and the West Midlands result on Saturday are Tory wins, the prime minister could make an announcement on Tuesday (Monday is the early May bank holiday), dissolve parliament on Wednesday and hold an election on 13 June.

This would probably mean not waiting for Rwanda flights to take off; it would contradict Sunak’s “working assumption” that the election would be in the second half of the year; but it would seize the initiative and, with luck, cut short more months of the equivalent of stories of Tory MPs phoning elderly aides at 3am to ask for large sums of money to pay off “bad people”.

Above all, it would cut short the endless speculation about the election date, which will otherwise drag on, adding to the impression that Sunak is dithering, and giving Labour more time to accuse him of “squatting” in Downing Street.

All the same, I don’t think it will happen. I have no inside knowledge – and nor, ultimately, does anyone else, because Sunak hasn’t decided yet. But I think the forces acting upon him tend towards delay. Prime ministers tend not to give up power before they have to, with the recent exceptions of Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Theresa May. But each of those cases was very different from Sunak’s today.

It is rumoured that Akshata, Sunak’s wife, is keen to get out of No 10. That is not what it looks like from her Instagram or from the No 10 Flickr account, both full of photos of her hyperactive charitable activities in Downing Street.

Of course it is possible, as the gloomy Dowden fears, that things will go on getting worse. That if the Rwanda flights take off the small boats will keep coming; that more money in voters’ pockets will simply lead them to think they can afford a Labour government; that Nigel Farage and Reform will continue to syphon away core Tory votes.

But we should remember the personality type that goes into politics. As Matthew Parris writes of the risk-taking that led him, as an MP, to cruise for sex on Clapham Common: “People who want to be MPs have an enlarged appetite for status, fame and applause, an exaggerated belief in their own chances, and a stunted appreciation of risk.”

Sunak is obviously no risk-taker in his private life, but he certainly has an “exaggerated belief” in his own chances. He thinks that he, and he alone, can turn things round if he is just given time.

So I don’t think there will be an election in June or July. The next likely date, after a pre-election Budget, would be 10 October. But the prime minister is just as likely to go for 14 November, or 12 December, which would be exactly five years after the last election.

*This article was amended 22 April when Savanta reported an error in its West Midlands poll, the original version of which put Andy Street two points ahead.

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