Under section 2 of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022, parliament is dissolved and a general election triggered by the King, using prerogative powers.
But the conventions which dictate how the UK’s system of constitutional monarchy operates mean it is the prime minister who traditionally travels to Buckingham Palace to request the dissolution of parliament.
Election timing, therefore, is entirely the reserve of the PM of the day and their lectern — the latter of which is duly placed on Downing Street as the key signal for Buckingham Palace and No 10 outsiders that a national poll awaits.
One cultural consequence of the recent restoration of the PM’s election-calling power — which followed the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 — is that the media now feverishly questions the incumbent, Rishi Sunak, as to his thinking.
And, in response, Sunak has already dropped some pretty significant hints. On 18 December 2023, the prime minister informed journalists that the coming year of 2024 would be an election year. Then, with speculation running rife as to the possibility of an early election, Sunak appeared to narrow his room for manoeuvre further in January 2024 — telling broadcasters that it it his “working assumption” that an election would take place in the second half of the year.
Ultimately, the prime minister is running out of time to hone his case to the public before his inevitable, and inaugural, encounter with the electorate. So, informed by Sunak’s recent pronouncements — together with our knowledge of precedent (elections are by tradition held on a Thursday, for instance) — politics.co.uk has crunched the numbers and analysed some likely dates the PM might plump for a poll. Ready your diaries…
2 May 2024 as a possible election date
It is worth considering that Rishi Sunak has not entirely ruled out an early election with his recent “second half of the year” admission.
Indeed, this much-reported comment came amid rampant speculation in early January that Sunak would call an election on 2 May to coincide with the scheduled local elections.
During the the New Year/Christmas period, chancellor Jeremy Hunt‘s decision to pen in the spring budget for the historically early date of 6 March raised eyebrows significantly in SW1. (In 2023, the spring budget landed on the 15th; in 2022, it was the 23rd). Hunt’s timing here would, one prominent theory holds, ensure voters feel the likely tax giveaways before a May election.
This approach would amount to a conscious imitation of former prime minister John Major’s successful 1992 strategy. At the 1992 general election, Major’s Conservatives won a majority — in contradiction of the polling and prevailing consensus — when the PM called an national poll off the back of a well-received spring budget.
Already, at the Autumn Statement in November, Hunt announced that the cut in National Insurance from 12 per cent to 10 per cent would take effect from 6 January. This move was itself interpreted as a signal that Sunak was keeping his election options open, given tax changes usually apply from the start of the tax year in April. Hunt’s decision to implement a £10 billion cut in the New Year was illustrative of the government’s desire for voters to feel the benefits sooner rather than later — ahead of a May election, even.
So a May election remains a genuine possibility. In fact, further proof that Sunak has not completely excluded the possibility of an early/spring election comes by way of his inability to outline a date for the upcoming European Political Community (EPC). It is reported that EU diplomats believe the PM’s delay in providing a date for the next meeting of the EPC, slated to be in London and initially expected to take place in March or April, is because he wants to retain the option of holding an election this spring.
To take a different line of analysis, some strategists believe it may be in the Conservative Party’s best interests to go early in May as part of a bid to stem inevitable losses. Indeed, just as things could “turn up” for the prime minister in later months — further economic good news, for example — so too could the situation deteriorate.
With the end of winter, Channel crossings will begin to rise once more; and the deepening mortgage crisis, with homeowners facing the end of their current fixed rate contracts, is likely too to exact an electoral toll. Sunak’s party management problems could spiral, too, with Conservative rebels apparently intent on thwarting the prime minister’s policy initiative at every turn.
On top of this, as John Major found in 1997, the optics of being seen to hold onto power past one’s time — with opinion polls refusing to relent — are inherently politically difficult. And Sunak may be doubly exposed to this criticism, given that he remains, as opposition parties like to point out, a “man without a mandate”. Lord Daniel Finkelstein, a former adviser to Major, has warned Sunak thusly: “When I look back on the 1997 election, I think one thing we could have done to mitigate the size of our defeat is to have gone slightly earlier”.
A May election would also fit with recent history, with ten of the last eleven elections having taken place in spring or early summer. Six of those were held jointly with local elections.
Holding a national poll alongside the local elections could even confer on the Conservatives an organisational advantage, given Rishi Sunak’s party is said to have fewer activists than Labour. A 2 May general election would marshal an army of councillors, wannabe councillors, and local activists to the Conservatives’ cause — very necessary if the party remains behind in the polls, which right now seems likely.
Cons of holding an early election
Given an election generally takes place 25 working days after the dissolution of parliament, for a poll to be held on 2 May, Sunak would have to indicate as much, at the very latest, on 26 March.
Simply put, were the prime minister to call an election according to this schedule, it would be a serious gamble. The very act of staking the future of the party, and the careers of a horde of MPs in marginal constituencies on an optimistic hunch, would be rubbished in some quarters of the Conservative Party as reckless. The memory of the 2017 election campaign — when then-PM Theresa May called an election far earlier than she was obliged — still haunts the Conservatives. And May in 2017, of course, was polling far ahead of Sunak now.
Moreover, while weaponising tax cuts — John Major-style — seems like a reasonable pre-election gambit on paper, right now there is little evidence to show that Hunt’s autumn statement tax cut through with voters. Would the spring budget prove any more politically potent?
Ultimately, there is also no getting around the fact that an election in May would, if the polls fail to rally, be manifestly self-destructive. Governments only tend to call an election before the end of the five-year term when confident of success. A May election remains a seriously unlikely prospect — especially given it is Sunak’s “working assumption” that an election will be held in the second half of the year. There appears little reason not to take the prime minister at his word in this instance.
Likelihood rating: 5/10
10 October 2024 as a possible election date
With opinion polls showing the Conservatives trailing Labour by an average of 19 points, the prevailing view in Westminster is that Sunak will play it long and hope to persuade voters that the economy is moving in the right direction.
Moreover, as far as Rishi Sunak’s personal motivations go, if the PM calls an election any time in October or beyond, the history books could not accuse him of a gamble that backfired on his party. If he goes “long”, on the morning after election night, the prime minister could plausibly plead to ousted MPs and posterity that he tried everything he could to thwart Labour’s advance.
Indeed, in light of the prime minister’s recent comments on timing, an autumn/winter appears to be baked into No 10’s political strategy. Take also the government’s recent end-of-year (2023) round-up, shared across the government’s social media channels, which urged voters to examine what the government achieves in the next “52 weeks”. When it was first unveiled, the video raised eyebrows in Westminster, and it has since been cited as evidence as to the prime minister’s purported intention to go “long”.
Along these lines, one option for the prime minister would be to call an election as soon as MPs return from summer recess in September — a move which would see voters head to the polls the following month. If an election was called on the first day after summer recess, 2 September, parliament would be dissolved on 5 September, and an election take place on 10 October.
Having the prime minister take advantage of his constitutional right to occupy No 10 for a full two years would perhaps be viewed as logical by party apparatchiks — if for no other reason than his first year in office was arguably spent steadying the ship after Liz Truss.
Moreover, given Jeremy Hunt is expected to announce further tax cuts in the spring budget, waiting until the autumn could mean voters are more likely to feel the benefits — with improvement on other economic indicators exalted as evidence Sunak’s plan is working.
There is also the matter, as ever, of the prime minister’s flagship Rwanda deportation scheme. Sunak, who has spent much of his time in No 10 extolling his status as a problem solver, would likely loath to call an election before he has met his promise to get flights to Rwanda off the ground. Calling an election later this year could give the prime minister enough time to navigate the Rwanda Bill through the House of Lords and see off any subsequent legal challenges.
A series of flights to Rwanda could — some Conservative figures resolve — prove the electoral elixir the prime minister needs.
Cons of holding an autumn election
An October 10 election would present a dilemma to the prime minister over when/whether to hold a party conference. These annual fêtes of party activists are usually held in this autumn period and provide important political and revenue-raising opportunities for a party. It is also noted that holding one in this period could harm Sunak’s election campaign by drawing party activists to boozy fringe events and away from the doorsteps of marginal constituencies.
A party conference also takes months of planning, and thus signalling his desire not to hold one would narrow down his election thinking significantly, potentially providing Labour with important clues as to a poll date; that is something Sunak seems keen to avoid.
In the end, if Sunak pursues an October election, it is likely that party conferences — and their associated financial and political benefits — would have to be forgone.
Likelihood rating: 6.5/10
14 November 2024 as a possible election date
If the prime minister plumps for a November election, he could very simply square the circle of when/whether to hold a party conference; in fact, such a scenario could see the prime minister use the annual fête as a crucial pre-election opportunity.
Picture the scene as the prime minister stands atop his conference soapbox, basking in the glow of the media spotlight and before a packed audience of eager Conservative activists, states his intention to call an election. Rebel MPs, who might otherwise have used the conference to manoeuvre and plot, would feel compelled to fall into line; and anything uttered at the Labour Party conference a few days prior would be rendered relatively immaterial.
As it happens, George Osborne, the former chancellor, recently claimed on his Political Currency podcast that No 10 has singled out 14 November as the likely date for a poll. For this to be the case, the prime minister would have to make the requisite pre-election announcement in mid-late October — slap bang in the middle of conference season.
Osborne said: “A little birdie has told me that the various work programmes required to get ready for a general election have that date singled out — 14 November.
“By the way, logic leads you there because you’re not going to have it in the first half of the year. I mean, this pretence that Rishi Sunak could have a May election was something we discussed last year. It’s a non-starter. He’s more than 20 points behind in the opinion polls. He’s not going to have a spring election.
He added: “So then you’re left with the autumn. And you’re probably thinking: ‘I know, we’ll have the party conference as a kind of launch pad. We’ll fit in an autumn statement, like a mini-budget, either before that or immediately after it.’ And that kind of leads you into mid-November. So 14 November kind of writes itself”.
Cons of holding an autumn/winter election on 14 November
One consequence of this election schedule is that it would overlap the United States’ own campaigning period, with their poll scheduled to be held on 5 November.
This could be an issue given the prime minister is reported to have been advised by the security services to avoid any UK-US electoral convergence, on the grounds that they believe this to be a “huge” security risk. Hostile actors are expected to attempt to influence results on both sides of the Atlantic.
On top of this, politically, such Transatlantic electoral convergence in late 2024 could forge in presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump and Rishi Sunak a marriage of grave political inconvenience.
Picture the prime minister once more as he is on the campaign trail, incessantly quoted the former president’s positions, and forced at every turn to walk a tightrope: neither rebuking nor embracing Trump’s extreme, domestically unpopular positions. Observers on both sides of the pond could frame 2024’s Transatlantic electoral convergence as some era-defining, politically-totemic right versus left, progressive versus reactionary contest. Keir Starmer, it is well-known, sees virtue in such an approach; Sunak, conversely, should beware The Donald.
Trump also maintains his admirers in the Conservative Party; during the 2020 presidential election, for instance, Suella Braverman’s prime patron Sir John Hayes was seen wielding a “Keep America Great” banner. And in recent weeks a string of Conservative figureheads have entered the fray to essentially endorse the former US President — individuals such as Sir Jacob Rees Mogg, Dame Andrea Jenkyns and Boris Johnson. With other party figures rather less glowing when it comes to the former White House occupant, the US election could serve to highlight and potentially inflame divisions in the Conservative Party.
Likelihood rating: 7.5/10
12 December 2024 as a possible election date
A December election, meanwhile, would see both the prime minister avoid any dire electoral convergence with the United States, and allow for a party conference to be built into the government’s pre-poll preparations as a crucial staging post.
On top of this, it would also allow for a full, final autumn statement to be delivered by the chancellor, with further tax giveaways likely forthcoming. In this way, Rishi Sunak could essentially repeat John Major’s 1992 strategy — albeit in a different season — while allowing for enough time for improved economic growth prospects and inflation figures to cut through with voters.
A 12 December election would come exactly five years after the 2019 poll — which could give the prime minister’s choice of this date some semblance of legitimacy, and thus possibly counter Labour’s long-trailed “squatter” criticisms. It would also require the prime minister to trigger the poll in the week beginning 18 November, almost two weeks after the US election.
And because 2024 is a leap year, the 12 December is once more a Thursday. Are the stars aligning for Sunak?
An additional consideration here, is that if Donald Trump does win the US election, then my analysis above could be flipped. Labour leader Keir Starmer would be under pressure to walk back his criticism of the now-president in order to secure a US-UK trade deal. Labour, as a consequence, would split over how to treat Trump (see shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry’s recent comments, for example). In this scenario, Sunak could snipe from the sidelines — extolling himself, as he so often does, as a statesman.
But, more profoundly, if the polls remain stubborn through 2024, self-preservation instincts, combined with Sunak’s intent to strike down Labour’s towering poll lead, could see the government stretch time in this parliament to its limit. Despite there being clear prima facie cases for a general election to be held in May or October, the prime minister would likely loath to risk the future of his party, and his career, when he still thinks progress can still be made. No 10, one presumes, still has faith Sunak can turn the polls around — we shouldn’t expect that faith to diminish and for him to throw in the towel with an early election.
A quick check of the historical record also shows that in 1997 and 2010 — the last two times the UK has had a change of party in power — the ruling party held on until the last possible moment.
Moreover, if — by October — we are now inexorably approaching “long” territory, why would Sunak not stick it out to the end, see through the term the Conservative Party was granted in 2019, and give himself as much time as possible to inspire a revival and avoid a much-foretold routing? He will be forced to withstand attacks on him as a “squatter” in any case, why not allow yourself some more crucial months to take the fight to Labour?
Likelihood rating: 7.5/10
23 January 2025 as a possible election date
The analysis above arguably makes the case for a January 2025 election, too. The longer the prime minister waits will mean more time for the PM to hone a coherent vision; more time to stamp his authority on his party as factions swirl and egos agitate; more time to prove to his party he can win; more time to advance on NHS waiting lists, industrial action, small boats crossings, economic growth and inflation; and, thus, more time to win the “trust” of voters — as he committed to in his first address outside No 10 as PM.
According to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022, an election on 28 January 2025 is the last possible date that one could be held. (By convention, however, polls are usually held on a Thursday, meaning that 23 January 2025 is the last likely date).
But January also happens to be the only month the prime minister has ruled out to set the scene for an election, given he informed journalists on 18 December 2023, that 2024 would be an election year.
It is pretty plain to see why the prime minister would rule this option out. A January election would involve would-be MPs campaigning over Christmas — something that has not happened in the UK since 1910. It is an unattractive prospect for all the major parties and probably the public too, with poor weather and shorter daylight hours likely to affect both campaigning and turnout.
Likelihood rating: 3/10
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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