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Text | James van der Graaf, Simon Fitzpatrick, Alice Perry
Date | 21 March 2024
Read | 7 min
James van der Graaf
Simon Fitzpatrick
Alice Perry
Rishi Sunak may have hoped that ruling out a General Election on 2 May last week would dampen discussion as to when he will call the country to the polls. On the contrary, speculation is running rife and there is yet to emerge any clear consensus from political commentators and politicians alike as to the when Sunak will opt to go to the polls. Technically, the last possible date for an election is 23 January, although there are sound arguments to be made on the side of opting for October or November, or, sooner still, June.

To cut through the noise, the H/Advisors Cicero team has produced a timeline plotting out events across these three possible electoral scenarios and the potential effects on the rest of the political calendar.
Early Election
There has been growing speculation in Westminster that the Prime Minister could be tempted to go to the polls early and call a General Election ahead of Summer Recess. While Rishi Sunak has previously said that it is his “working assumption” that a General Election will be in the second half of the year, there are some indicators that he could still go to the country early.

Firstly, the Government’s flagship Rwanda Bill had its Third Reading in the House of Lords on 12 March, with it returning to the Commons amended on 18 March. Assuming the Bill passes its remaining stages relatively smoothly, the theory goes, we could see flights to Rwanda lift off by the end of March and a perfect platform to run a campaign on. If, as is more likely given the heavy defeats the Bill has already incurred in the Lords, it is scuppered, Sunak could present an early election as a choice between implementing his plan to stop the boats and Labour’s plan to scrap the Rwanda policy.

There were suggestions that Sunak could go for 2 May to coincide with the local elections as he is nervous about a potential leadership challenge if the results of the local elections are as bad as expected. These seats were last contested in 2021 with the Conservatives making significant gains off the back of a post-pandemic bounce. Given local polling and the national picture, it is widely expected that opposition parties will make significant gains this time around.

The Prime Minister has poured cold water on this suggestion, confirming that a General Election will not be held on that day. For those advocating for an early poll, they point to Sunak’s curious wording, explicitly ruling out 2 May but not reaffirming his working assumption that it will be held in the second half of the year. While a polling date in May is now unlikely given the need to get the Party’s campaign and ground game reset after the local elections, June and July are still feasibly in play. There is also a historical precedent here. In 2017, Theresa May decided not to call a General Election to coincide with the locals and then held one five weeks later in June. If Sunak was to follow suit and go for 6 June, he would have to dissolve Parliament by 30 April.

However, both the Government’s recent positioning and a gloomy national picture make this unlikely. The Budget showed that the Chancellor is waiting for another OBR forecast and an opportunity for further tax cuts before going to the country. By Autumn, the economy may have turned a corner, with inflation under 2% and interest rates beginning to fall. We could then see a second fiscal event of the year with more giveaways and a retail offer pitched at voters.

An early election would also mean entering a campaign 20 points behind in the polls and with the vast majority of his five pledges to the country unfulfilled. The more likely strategy is to wait and see if the political mood music in Westminster changes. See whether Labour slip up, whether flights to Rwanda get off the ground and whether the economic picture is sunnier.

Autumn Election
If we are to take Rishi Sunak at his word the General Election will fall in the “second half” of this year. That would likely mean an election coming after the peak summer months of July and August when many voters are either abroad on holiday or trying to make the most of whatever summer sunshine the UK is afforded. An Autumn election therefore seems a good bet and this would typically mean October or November.

Numerous off-the-record briefings from officials in recent months would suggest that November is less favoured due to the proximity to the US Presidential election taking place on Tuesday 5 November. There are both practical and political reasons why it would seem prudent to avoid that clash. On the practical front, with the security services believed to be nervous about the heightened potential for cyber attacks and electoral manipulation if two major western democracies are going to the polls around the same time.

Politically, with the Prime Minister having significant ground to make up in the race, he will surely want to have as much opportunity to get his message across as possible, and that would be made more difficult if he is competing for airtime and column inches with the closing stages of the election of the ‘leader of the free world’. It therefore makes sense to go a little earlier, a case further strengthened by a desire to avoid any market turmoil which may follow the potential re-election of former President Trump, something which could have a contagion effect on the UK economy.

An election in early-October would also see Parliament dissolved in late-August or early-September, meaning that much of the campaign could take place during the back end of the summer when, in theory, we might still be enjoying half decent weather, making life a little less miserable for party activists than in a campaign fought later in November, December or January. One minor obstacle for an October election would be the question of party conferences, which would fall within the closing stages of the campaign period. Annual conferences are a significant source of funds for the parties, but with Electoral Commission data published this week showing both the major parties raising huge sums from private donors in 2023, the possibility of conferences being scrapped is unlikely to be a major concern. It may be that slimmed-down gatherings could go ahead to serve as US-style political rallies as polling day approaches.

October elections were a fairly common occurrence in the 20th Century, but we haven’t had one for 50 years. Thursday 10 October will be the 50th anniversary of that election, when Harold Wilson won his last of four General Election victories. Wilson has often been mentioned as a source inspiration to Keir Starmer – maybe that date could be written in the stars.
Winter Election
If Rishi Sunak wants to avoid the UK election clashing with the USA Presidential election, he could decide to hold the UK general election in December. Possible dates include the 12 or even 19 December. Polling suggests voters are not keen on a December election and there is a risk they could punish the government for delaying the election until the end of 2024. The weather in the winter months could depress turnout and would be miserable for activists. Traditionally it has been believed that anything that depresses turnout has a negative impact on Labour voters, but voting patterns have changed dramatically since the 2016 EU Referendum. The Conservatives will be keen to convince disillusioned swing voters to turnout to vote for them if they want to hold on to some of the constituencies they gained in 2019. Poor weather could also add to a general sense of gloom, which could prove unhelpful for the incumbent party trying to counter Labour’s message that the country is on a path of managed decline and needs change.

Alternatively, Rishi Sunak may choose to go long and hold the General Election at the last possible opportunity in January 2025. There is a risk voters will punish him for this, but he may calculate that it is worth it. Gordon Brown was criticised for not calling an early election and was dogged by allegations that he “bottled it.” Labour is attempting to frame the next General Election in similar terms.

Rishi Sunak could choose to go long to cement his legacy and maximise his time in office, as well as giving the economy more time to recovery. This is a potentially risky strategy as things could get worse as the UK reaches the winter months. As Sunak considers his legacy in office, he could reflect on his successes. He was credited with showing international leadership on AI safety and may want to continue in office to lead the UK to the second Global AI safety summit. But with support for Reform growing, and many of his MPs openly plotting and discussing who should be next to lead the Conservatives, the question remains about whether he can hold on until the end of the year, and if he even wants to.