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General Election 2024 – Why now?

So Rishi Sunak confounded us all! An unexpected snap election will keep us all busy over the next six weeks. But why now? There are many theories being postulated but the REC team have some theories all of our own.

The official line is that Sunak wants to go to the public on his own terms and did not want to wait it out until later in the year to have the Gordon Brown charge of ‘squatting in Number 10’ thrown at him. And there may of course be some truth in that. But there are a number of other ideas floating around.

Other parties

First off, he wanted to wrong foot Labour. Whilst Labour may be 20 points ahead in the polls, so was Theresa May in 2017 and look what happened to her! Labour have yet to appoint around 100 candidates and this year are significantly behind the Tories in bringing in political donations by around £10 million. Some or all of that may also be factors.

Then there is Gaza, which the local elections showed is a not inconsiderable problem for Labour. Going now while Gaza is still a live issue for the British Muslim vote might be tactically astute.

What is clear is that Starmer has not set the polls alight. He is not a Tony Blair getting voters to switch to his cause. Labour's lead in the polls is largely due to Tory voters saying they're not sure they will vote Tory. And Sunak rather fancies his chances debating Starmer, not least because in the open goal that Starmer has at 1230 hrs every Wednesday afternoon at PMQs against Sunak, Starmer rarely manages to get the ball in the back of the net. Hence Sunak challenging Starmer to as many debates as possible; no doubt we’ll see some poor junior Conservative Campaign HQ kid following Starmer around dressed as a chicken sometime soon. (With a First in PPE from Oxford, their parents will be so proud).

The Lib Dems are nowhere in the polls, with perhaps some days even Ed Davey forgetting he is leader of a political party, and the SNP is falling like a stone principally because they all keep getting arrested. Both could help Labour win, so better to get ahead of those two problems and make it harder for Labour?

And Reform has been increasingly nibbling away at the Tories vote and, as a small party with not much money, a snap election is a nightmare for them. So part of Sunak's thinking is to kill Reform quickly now so they can’t kill the Tories more slowly later on this year.

The issues

The conspiracy theorists have said that Sunak was getting uncomfortably close to the magic 50-odd letters going into Sir Graham Brady, the 1922 Committee chairman, which means that he might have been in danger of being toppled anyway, so he lanced the boil on his own terms. Maybe, but this seems a little far-fetched.

On immigration, there is going to be a clear and loud dividing line: vote Tory and Rwanda flights will take off “in July” – possibly quite an elastic term – after the election. Vote Labour and it’s not just that the Rwanda plan will be cancelled but the recent Illegal Immigration Act (which declared that if you arrive in the UK illegally you automatically have no right to remain) so the 90-110k recent arrivals will be allowed to stay under Labour. That argument will run and run throughout the election campaign.

Then there's all the doom-mongers who say that Rwanda flights are going to be mired in judicial reviews and won’t take off anytime soon, a headline inflation rate predicted to tick up a little in the autumn and, despite some big political moves recently including National Insurance tax cuts, promises on defence spending, culture war attacks on wokeism etc, the Tories just aren’t getting any voter benefit, so time to roll the dice and put Starmer in the spotlight.

REC views

The REC team have two further logs to throw on the fire:

If Sunak’s team really thought that things were only going to get better over the next few months, then he wouldn't be going early. So we think it is reasonable to assume the Tories’ own internal projections – economic, political, Rwanda etc – show that things are going to get tougher not easier for them.

And then there are all these rumours that Sunak is not really enjoying himself. Like all prime ministers being bludgeoned over the head by bad news day in day out, there is a pain threshold and eventually it hurts. The lure of ‘California Dreaming’ and all those nice international non-executive positions versus being beaten to almost certain electoral death for the next few months maybe just proved too much.

Once the political autobiographies are written in the years ahead we may have more clarity.

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