Rishi Sunak will wait until the last possible moment to call a general election

When will Rishi Sunak call the next general election? With the Conservatives still 20-plus points behind Labour in the polls, it’s a question that won’t go away. The Westminster consensus is that the prime minister has three main options: May 2024; October 2024; or January 2025. Until recently, many discounted the latter as a long-shot, but I increasingly believe it’s the most likely. Let me explain. 

First, the constitutional stuff. This parliament will automatically dissolve on 17 December 2024, five years after it first met, unless it is dissolved sooner by the King. That means polling day must occur no more than 25 days later, not including weekends and bank holidays. In other words, legally the general election must be held by 28 January 2025. Although given that would be a Tuesday, and traditionally UK elections are held on Thursdays, the 23rd seems far likelier. 

At first glance, a January election is a terrible option. The campaign would begin a week before Christmas, and demoralised Tory activists would be forced to endure cold winter nights of canvassing for the second successive election. It would also strongly imply a government on course for heavy defeat but determined to prolong the electoral verdict for as long as possible. Labour would, no doubt, make great play of ‘Sunak the squatter’ trying to eke out his days in Downing Street to the bitter end. 

And yet, as things stand, January 2025 remains the least worst option for the prime minister. Firstly, there is nothing wrong in trying to prolong your time in office. Sunak himself will be only too aware of his diminishing prospects at the ballot box; so if you’re expecting to lose anyway, why not give yourself 27 months in Number 10, as opposed to 19 (May ‘24) or 24 (October ‘24)? It isn’t simply historical vanity that makes outlasting Anthony Eden desirable. Having only been PM since last October, Sunak will want to use every day available to deliver on his priorities: from improving the economy to leading the global approach to AI. 

Secondly, there are concerns from the civil service about an autumn 2024 contest clashing with the US presidential election. According to The Times, officials have warned cabinet ministers any overlap would come with “huge” security risks, citing fears about an incoming Labour government with inexperienced ministers dealing with a global crisis while a new White House administration hasn’t completed its diplomatic appointments. Personally, I think these concerns, whilst serious, are not insurmountable, and they shouldn’t weigh too heavily on Rishi Sunak. More likely, such warnings could give him a political justification for delaying the general election into the New Year, deflecting accusations he’s afraid of facing the voters. 

However, the most important justification for choosing January 2025 is probably the most obvious: the hope that something might turn up. Be it economic recovery, a new global conflict inspiring support for the incumbent PM, or a Labour scandal, playing for time is the Conservatives’ best hope of victory. On their new podcast Political Currency, George Osborne told Ed Balls about his experience as an advisor in the dying days of the last Tory government, “there was endless speculation John Major could go early… but every single day you’re confronted with that question you come to the conclusion that we’re going to lose if we call it today, so let’s see what happens tomorrow.” According to SkyBet, the chance of a January 2025 election is 8/1, with three different windows in 2024 all preferred. If you ask me, those odds will only narrow. Running down the clock might not be the most original idea, but it’s Rishi Sunak’s last hope. 

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So (very) ‘long’, prime minister: a January 2025 election has never looked more likely