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Things Can Only Get Wetter for Sunak

14 years to the month that the Conservatives were elected in 2010, Rishi Sunak has taken the ultimate gamble that bemused just about everyone in SW1. Photo © Rayhan Hussain / Roar News

Comment editor Rayhan Hussain analyses PM Rishi Sunak’s reasoning for calling an earlier than expected general election and examines what the previous two years can tell us about the outcome of the next 5 weeks.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will be aware that in under 6 weeks time, on July 4, the British people will go to the polls – and carry out the ultimate democratic act of electing the next government.

Conservative MPs were caught by surprise, as were the Labour Party. Rishi Sunak’s own cabinet were informed only moments before he attended to the lectern to address the nation. The conventional wisdom in Westminster certainly wasn’t expecting him to announce a snap poll, especially after the Tories faced an enormous drubbing at the local elections earlier this month. 

Following that disastrous moment for the prime minister, as well as two defections to the opposition in the space of a fortnight, Sunak going early was widely considered off the table. Not to mention Labour’s ubiquitous and prolonged 20-point poll lead against the Tories, which has seen no signs of changing despite several attempts by the Sunak administration to shift the dial. A 14 November election was my personal prediction for the date of the election (although my usual caveat is that predictions in politics are a fallacy!).

Why Now?

Sunak could have kept going for another 6 months. He could have waited for the economic recovery to be further solidified over the summer. He could have been vindicated on the Rwanda policy by finally initiating flights for asylum seekers to the African nation. If he had continued until October at least, he would have been able to mark two years in Downing Street. So why now?

One suggestion is that the economy is recovering at a stable enough level that Sunak feels comfortable to fight an election with. On Wednesday morning, the Office for National Statistics announced that inflation had fallen to 2.3%, within touching distance of the Bank of England’s 2% target. Earlier this month, there was also positive news on GDP figures, showing that the UK economy had grown by 0.6% in the first quarter of 2024.

There were also indications that another cut to National Insurance before a possible Autumn election would no longer be possible within the Treasury’s so-called ‘fiscal headroom.’ With compensation packages for victims affected by the infected blood scandal, the Post Office Horizon injustices, as well as pay-outs for the WASPI women reaching the tens of billions, any desired tax cuts would have been deemed unaffordable by the Office for Budget Responsibility. 

Ultimately, the public want to have trust in their government to be responsible with their money. In any head-to-head debate or campaign event about the economy, all Labour have to do is utter the words ‘Liz Truss’ and the mantle of economic credibility that the Tories may once have claimed is immediately shattered. As the party’s manifestos emerge in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to scrutinise the differences in the two main parties’ economic priorities.

Whilst an interest rate cut was imagined likely in June, this was not priced in. And despite this recent positive economic news, voters are undoubtedly still feeling the pinch. We may be turning a corner, but it will take a while for people to feel better off.

Parties in Full Campaign Mode

Get ready for a full-blown presidential-style campaign, with both Sunak and Starmer taking centre stage.

Currently, we are only one full week in to the campaign and we are witnessing all the archetypes of a classic British general election. Party leaders falling victim to embarrassing and awkward gaffes on the road meeting voters. Tussles about how frequently the two main party leaders should debate one another head-on.

The contours of the party’s main messages have been set in stone. For Sunak, it’s ‘the plan is working – don’t let the others mess it up.’ From CCHQ’s point of view, economic recovery is at a precious stage, and a Labour government would only hamper it. For Starmer, ’it is time for an end to the chaos, and a decade of national renewal under a changed Labour Party.’ From Labour’s point of view, the Tories have inflicted enough damage on themselves to convince voters that they are unfit for office.

Remember as well the potency of that word ‘change’ – and what it signifies is something that is undoubtedly not lost on voters. There comes a point in the political cycle when a party has been in power for too long. The natural and healthy course of action for a democracy is to allow the alternative a chance to govern. Some Tories have even acknowledged themselves that they need a period in opposition to sort themselves out and come back fighting strong in 2029.

Sunak’s Prime Ministerial Legacy

It’s perhaps slightly premature to start examining how the history books will depict the Sunak premiership. Without a doubt, he achieved his main objective and the mandate upon which he was crowned by Tory MPs – to restore confidence in the financial markets following the economic meltdown caused by the Truss government.

Three of the five pledges made by the prime minister in January 2023 were economic. Halving inflation, tick. Growing the economy, tick. Reducing debt, contested depending on which figures you look at. My sense however is that this restoration of sorts in economic stability is how Sunak will be largely remembered.

His programme for government was not something that espoused excitement or passion amongst the public. His first year in office was marred by Tory scandals, infighting, and a lack of clear policy direction in No 10, as this piece documents. One policy that was considered a part of his legacy, a crack down on smoking and vaping – was scrapped when Parliament was prorogued last week. We also understand that the Rwanda policy is now contingent on Sunak’s re-election in July. And the bill to enshrine legal protections for leaseholders and renters, introduced by the Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove? Also scrapped.

Scrutinising the policy achievements, Sunak did restore power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland, with Stormont reopened in February this year for the first time since February 2022. The prime minister also continued support for Ukraine, announcing a £500 million military aid package to support their war efforts just last month. Relations with the EU were improved, with the introduction of the Windsor Framework to improve aspects of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. And the long-term workforce plan for the NHS unveiled last summer was widely acknowledged as a positive step forward in filling recruitment gaps in the health service. 

Another element of this political moment being underestimated is the number of Tory MPs standing down from Parliament. It has already surpassed those who left the Commons in 1997 (75), with 78 Tories confirmed to be leaving the Commons as I write. Real Conservative heavyweights who have shaped our politics over the last few years will no longer be around. The likes of Theresa May, Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Dominic Raab, Dehenna Davison, and the recent surprise of Michael Gove calling it quits. We are witnessing a real changing of the guard moment at this election. And there will be further announcements, undeniably.

The Importance of the Campaign

Before we get too ahead of ourselves though, 6 weeks is an incredibly long time in politics. Campaigns can change absolutely everything. Ordinary voters only really start to inspect what the parties are offering in the final few weeks before polling day.

Just look at what happened in 2017, when Theresa May called a snap poll off the back of a stellar set of local election results – only to lose her majority and her authority at the ballot box.

The not-so-significant factor of Reform UK standing in 630/650 constituencies is also notable. Disaffected Tory voters, unhappy about levels of migration and taxes, will flock to the party of which Nigel Farage is honorary president – in an act of protest against the Tories. Given this scenario, the Conservative vote share collapses, and Labour benefit from all sorts of bitter political wrangling on the right. If the polls are correct however, a victory is all but certain for Labour.

Whoever forms the next government on 5 July will face massive challenges at home and abroad. As conflict in the Middle East and Ukraine rages on, politicians will be feeling the pressure from all sides to have answers to enormously complex issues. The cost of living crisis is also not over, despite what some ministers may tell you.

In the meantime, get ready for 6 weeks of claims, counterclaims, political point-scoring, and pouring over the details of the parties’ pledges. Indeed, the only poll that matters is the one that takes place on July 4, when political power transfers away from the politicians and directly to the people. Until then, it promises to be a fascinating ride.

Reminder that if you are eligible to vote in the upcoming UK general election on 4 July, the deadline to register to vote is by midnight on Monday, 17 June. It only takes 5 minutes – you can do it on the link here.

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