Election 2024: cornered and with nowhere to turn, Rishi Sunak rolls the dice

And so it has come to pass. After a day of feverish speculation in Westminster, a soaking wet Rishi Sunak — drowned out by Tony Blair’s 1997 election theme tune — has confirmed that Britain will head to the polls on July 4th.

How does one explain this surprise development, given Westminster had collectively come to expect an election in the autumn or winter later this year? Well first, Sunak’s strategists will have resolved that this “shock” development works to their man’s advantage. The prime minister has never quite managed to grip the agenda at Westminster — but all that changed in the most profound, politically seismic way this afternoon. 

But Sunak’s rationale naturally runs deeper than any ephemeral shock factor — and it is twofold: (1), after some dire months politically, he will have felt compelled to stop the rot; and, (2), with the political tides refusing to turn, he had simply run out of tricks. Let’s take them in turn.

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It is no secret that Conservative decay had emerged as the prevailing narrative at Westminster. Politically crippling portents of a reckoning to come arrived weekly — and with escalating severity. Electoral routings, MP defections, sleaze scandals and stories of standing down Tories contoured the daily conversation at Westminster. It amounted to a slow, ostensibly inexorable, political disintegration.

As such, against this backdrop, Sunak had run out of meaningful responses.

Not so long ago, there was a time when the PM looked ahead to a series of set-piece events on the near horizon, lauding each as a chrysalis chamber from which he would emerge energised and election-ready. Count with me: Conservative Party conference, the King’s speech, a cabinet reshuffle and the autumn statement; all were framed in terms of how they might alter the destiny of a tired party tailspinning into opposition. In the end, the Spring Budget proved the last — and perhaps the purest — illustration of an underlying brutal reality: nothing was shifting the dial. 

Before the PM’s announcement today, therefore, we had reached the point in the political cycle when every action by the government was judged according to its electoral potency. It followed that, with Rishi Sunak’s party languishing over 20 points behind Labour by most measures, individual actions were dismissed as too late and not enough. But the reading was no breezier for the prime minister when his recent relaunch attempts were taken together: persistent strategic failure exacts a heavy toll — soon people just stop listening.

Moreover, every sepulchral set piece, every by-election routing, each distressing development (opinion poll, recession, etc.) served to further fan the flames of cynicism in the Conservative Party at large. A pungent odour of defeat hovered over every government move; a malaise had set in — and the Conservative Party was slowly coming to terms with it.

In this way, with a general election expected sooner or later (sooner as it turns out) and the polls showing no sign of narrowing, Conservative MPs still declined to fall behind Sunak en masse; the conservative press refused to temper its antagonism; and privately — and at times very publicly — ambitious MPs postured for a leadership contest to come.  

After the local elections, therefore, the question vexing Westminster was not whether Sunak‘s comeback could soon start, but rather: how low can the Conservatives go? The situation, with Sunak’s window for action shrinking by the week, was untenable. And so the dice gets rolled. 

Don’t doubt it for a second: this is the biggest gamble of Rishi Sunak’s premiership. 

Posterity will either declare it genius or political suicide. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our free daily newsletter here.