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Is Rishi Sunak learning to regret his summer election gamble?

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You start to wonder if he’s already regretting it. Rishi Sunak stunned Westminster — including the vast majority of the parliamentary Conservative Party — on Wednesday afternoon by calling an election many months earlier than he needed to. The UK, Sunak declared, will head to the polls on July 4 to cast its judgement over the political scene and elect a shiny, new parliament. Exciting times.

Much has been made of the prime minister’s speech yesterday — and not, suffice it to say, for the reasons his strategists hoped. The PM intended to draw the key dividing lines for the coming campaign, stressing his commitment to security and contrasting his stance with Keir Starmer’s.

But the speech’s substance (Sunak said little new) was not nearly as gripping as the surrounding context: Westminster watched in collective awe as the prime minister powered through the rain, sans umbrella, and competed with anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray’s roaring loudspeakers. D:Ream’s classic tune Things Can Only Get Better, memorably adopted by New Labour as its 1997 election anthem, reverberated around Downing Street and, ergo, the living rooms of all those watching.

That said, as historian Robert Saunders quickly pointed out, it could have been worse for our sodden and muffled premier. In 1892, Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone’s campaign got off to a difficult start after a piece of gingerbread, hurled by a hostile onlooker, hit the Grand Old Man square in the eye. Sunak has so far avoided any baked missiles, but an auspicious start his speech was not.

And once the prime minister returned to the warm embrace of Downing Street, the bad news continued to roll in.

It wasn’t long before the Conservative Party’s shock over a summer election turned to horror — and then anger. Late last night, GB News political editor Christopher Hope caught wind of a burgeoning plot to no less than oust the prime minister — a move designed to call off the just-called election. It would be constitutionally, let’s say, innovative.

The nascent coup attempt, like most of the rebels’ recent gambits, melted upon contact with reality. Rumours of MPs penning no confidence missives in Sunak rumble on in the background, but revoking the election is a manifestly barmy plan.

But this story points to a broader truth: many Conservative MPs are not best pleased with the prospect of having their careers gambled away on an optimistic hunch. If Rishi Sunak’s fortunes fail to rally over the coming weeks (and who would wager that they will?), expect this private fury to burst into the election foreground.

In this way, the central narrative of the ever-evolving election campaign remains its shock timing — the manifold implications of which are beginning to dawn on Westminster. For instance, the prime minister was forced to concede this morning that, because of the expedited election, there will be no deportation flights to Rwanda this side of polling day.

Speaking to the BBC, Sunak claimed the first Rwanda flights “will go in July” and that the government has “already put the preparations in place for that”. But, he added, no flights are expected to take off during the campaign. At the end of April remember, the prime minister said the first deportations would take place in “10 to 12 weeks”, potentially pointing towards June flights. More here.

“No ifs, no buts, these flights are going to Rwanda”, he clamoured at the time.

But now we have a very large “if” indeed — given the government’s flagship illegal migration plan is reliant on the ruling Conservative Party winning the election. Current polling, you don’t need me to remind you, would suggest this is unlikely; election guru Sir John Curtice recently rated the Tories’ chances of victory at 1 per cent.

This all begs one big question: why has Rishi Sunak decided to trigger an election now — given both the predictable Conservative backlash and the dire implications for his Rwanda scheme?

My featured article today (see below and here) has more on Sunak’s likely reasoning. But in short, the PM’s rationale would appear to be twofold: (1), having faced some dire months politically, he simply felt compelled to stop the rot; and, (2), with the political tides refusing to turn, he had run out of other meaningful responses. Find my full analysis here.

That said, a significant story this morning — concerning the plans of one Nigel Farage — points to another possible reason: Reform UK, of which the former UKIP leader is honorary president, just isn’t ready.

At the local elections earlier this month, Reform stood just one candidate for every seven council contests — leading many to doubt the party’s campaign resources and electoral nous. And this morning, the prime minister chalked up a rare win courtesy of the right-of-Conservative outfit: Nigel Farage announced he will not be standing as an election candidate.

More on that story, including Farage’s full statement, here.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer launched Labour’s campaign in Gillingham this morning surrounded by activists wielding signs with a single message: “Change”. “At long last, an election has been called”, the Labour leader said, adding: “The time has come, and the wait is over. And that means through the power of our democracy, the voters now get to choose.

“The power of the vote, the power each and every one of you has, to change our country, our community and your future for the better”.

Expect a relatively low-key campaign from Labour — one designed to highlight any Conservative dysfunction and avoid slip-ups. “Change”, Starmer reckons, will be the mantra that secures him Downing Street.

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