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When Will The Election Be? Scenario One: May ’24

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The right to choose the General Election date is one of the few residual advantages that Rishi Sunak enjoys as we approach the coming campaign. In this post, we consider Sunak's first option, a May 2024 election.

CONSERVATIVE ELECTION THEME: “WE’VE TAKEN THE TOUGH DECISIONS”

It makes a lot of logistical sense to call an election for the 2nd May. Allowing local elections and the general election to be conducted simultaneously can often make political sense too. All of the elections contested by Tony Blair (1997, 2001, 2005) plus 2010 took place alongside local elections.

If Rishi Sunak does call a May election, the latest practical date possible for him to do so would be on the 23rd March – so watch out for the Downing Street grid that day. At one level, an early election might save the PM from the fallout from this difficult set of local election results. But strategically it would make little sense if instead the removal vans have already escorted his possessions out of Number 10.

Labour strategists are certainly not ruling out the May possibility, with Labour’s senior strategists now openly speculating that the PM could go to the Palace on the 18th March. Keir Starmer’s deadline for Shadow Ministerial Teams to have submitted proposals for the Party’s manifesto was 8th February. This timeline was to ensure that there is enough time for the policy programme to be set and stress tested before an early election. Likewise at Labour HQ, Campaign Director Morgan McSweeney has insisted that a full campaign plan and budget are ready before 23rd March.

Economic Considerations

The recent news that the UK has officially tipped into a recession makes it harder for Sunak to argue that the economy has turned a corner. However, inflation in February was lower than market expectations.

A run of key dates in March might allow Sunak to tell a positive economic story if things broke his way – and if the public are willing to listen to him and his team. The Conservatives’ took the opportunity of the Budget on the 6th March to announce tax cuts (and set some “fiscal traps” for Labour) – although it doesn’t feel as though this has transformed their fortunes. Sunak will be hoping for positive news on GDP tomorrow (the 13th March), when ONS next releases growth stats, then next week on the 21st March the Bank of England MPC will meet to decide on interest rates. A mix of tax cuts, rising growth and falling interest rates would be a stronger backdrop for an election campaign. It may tempt Tory strategists into a 1992 election mindset.

Source: Bank of England Interest Rates Figures and ONS CPI Annual Rate

The State of the NHS

For the first time since May 2020 the number of people on NHS waiting lists for consultant-led elective care has fallen. Figure 3 reveals a September 2023 peak of 7.77 million people slowly declining to 7.71 million in October, and 7.61 million in November. While moderate, this may allow Sunak to argue things have begun to turn a corner.

Source: BMA analysis of NHS England Consultant-led Referral to Treatment Waiting Times statistics

Small Boat Crossings

Likewise, the rate of small boat crossings has dropped since last year. Typically, numbers decline over winter and don’t pick up until June/July when improving weather conditions make the crossing less dangerous. A May election would allow Sunak to get in ahead of a potential spike in summer crossings, which would undermine Conservative claims of progress on stopping the boats. However, an early election would mean it is unlikely that the Government’s Rwanda policy would be operational.

Source: Migration Watch UK Channel Crossing Tracker

Other Factors

The overwhelming factor against a May election is the current state of the polls. All major polls currently have Sunak and his Party facing a massive loss of seats if an election were held. While positive economic news in March could be helpful, turkeys tend not to demand that Christmas be brought forward, and Prime Ministers behind in the polls are always tempted to hold on to see if something comes along to change the game.

Additionally, in May, students are still in their university towns if they are studying away from home. A significant student mobilisation may cost the Conservatives up to a dozen additional seats.

An election called the week before British Summer Time, when the clocks go forward, may give Conservative strategists a sense that the nation may feel more charitable with the passing of winter. But that would be clutching at very short straws.

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