Over the last few weeks, I have been told with increasing certainty that the government is now working towards a general election in late Spring/early Summer this year (2024).
The theory began to gain traction following last month’s Autumn Statement, which was widely interpreted as setting up a Budget give away and an election in which voters are invited to vote for Tory tax cuts.
Such predictions are of course wrong, for the following ten reasons:
- No headroom: The term, fiscal headroom, suddenly became common parlance in the run up to the Autumn Statement. Basically, the economists told us, the Chancellor might have £20 billion or so to bribe us with and that’s what he did. Maybe he will have a little more come the Budget – it’s amazing what one finds down the side of the sofa – but it’s very unlikely to be enough to significantly shift the dial. So, the Tories will stick to Plan A and launch off the back of the Autumn Party Conference and look for a differentiator more compelling than a claim of tax cuts no one believes or, more importantly, feels.
- Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas: Of course, it is possible that the polls will turn and that Rishi maybe swept back into Number 10 on a wave of optimism and euphoria. There are plenty of examples internationally – especially in this newly febrile political atmosphere – of parties going into election campaigns well behind and turning things round, but (1) they are the exception not the rule (2) they only happen once the election campaign starts and the public really begins to focus on their choice. There is little which is likely to shift the polls dramatically between now and the start of an election campaign, and so, next March the Conservatives will still be staring down the barrel of defeat and the loss of 100-200 seats and turkeys… well, you know the rest…
- Time: A week is a long time in politics, but not in personal economics. The backdrop to the next election will be, above all, the cost of living crisis. Inflation is now falling (or to be more accurate increasing more slowly) but I still expect my cappuccino to cost me £2.20 not the current £3.40 and upwards. We need more time to get used to current prices and forget what things used to cost. For the Conservatives, the longer the better.
- It’s the economy stupid: More generally, the UK economy is a bit rubbish and there is little likelihood of anything other than sluggish growth in 2024, but maybe a Budget could give people a little more spending money. Maybe the sun and the euros and the coattails of the US economy might help people feel better whatever the reality. The longer the government leaves it, the greater the chance something will turn up.
- Better weather brings out the Labour vote: Older people are more likely to vote than younger ones. Older people are more likely to vote conservative. Therefore, anything that discourages voting helps the Conservatives. The weather is generally worse in October/November than May/June. QED, Conservatives prefer Autumn elections to Spring ones. Except when they don’t.
- More time for a flight to take off: Increasingly, the Conservative strategy seems to be to make the election about immigration. It’s a deeply troubling strategy for all sorts of reasons, not least because divided parties don’t win elections and nothing divides the Conservative party more than immigration. But the only chance for such a strategy is if at least the party can point to some success. It is highly unlikely that a flight will have taken off for Rwanda by the Spring, while by Autumn it may only be deeply improbable. Take the time.
- Regicide: Of course, all these theories assume that Rishi Sunak is still the Prime Minister. What if he isn’t? What if one of those knives sticks? Braveman will surely want a full year to burnish her reputation..
- Events: This is an argument not particularly against a Spring election but simply that political forecasting is a mug’s game. Something, anything, could happen in the next twelve months and could precipitate a general election any time, or never again. Most of the time remaining for a general election is not Spring…
- Political commentators love elections: Who is talking about when the next election will be? No one normal. Only political commentators. And why? Because political commentators love elections. More to comment about. So, they want an election sooner rather than later. It’s not actually a prediction, merely wish fulfilment.
- .It’s all spin: The one thing the government has in its favour is the right to call an election at a time of its choosing. The objective in doing so is to catch your opponent off-balance, march them up to the top of the hill and march them down again. If the government is speculating its Spring, you can be pretty sure it’s not. Unless it is.
The truth is that no-one has the faintest idea when the election will actually be held, other than no later than 28 January 2025. The government is keeping their options open and so it should.
One would be a fool to put all one’s eggs in any particular basket.