Week-in-Review: How Rishi Sunak lost control of the election narrative

Incumbency advantage is a very real thing in UK politics. When asked to select who they want as prime minister — either the incumbent or the Leader of the Opposition — Britons tend to lump in, perhaps logically, with the then-PM.

In fact, only once since Rishi Sunak turned 18 years old has an opposition party turfed out a Downing Street occupant — that most media conspicuous candidate endowed electorally to pen Speeches from the Throne, grant budget “giveaways”, set tricky fiscal “traps”, castigate their opponents as “risky” and, in good/improving times, urge Britons to stay the course.

What is more, with the demise of the Fixed Term Parliament Act in 2022 following the trauma of the 2017-19 parliament, this incumbency advantage has ostensibly strengthened in recent years. No longer must a government receive the assent of a qualified majority of two-thirds of MPs to trigger a national poll. Constitutionally, election timing is once more entirely the reserve of the prime minister and their lectern; in this area, at least, PMs are given the constitutional green light to be opportunistic.

Notably, the 2024 general election will be the first since the Fixed Term Parliament Act’s official demise — (the 2019 election was called via an FTPA-circumventing one-line bill). And one individual intent on boasting his restored prerogative power, all the way up to the day of its usage, is Rishi Sunak — the beleaguered incumbent desperate for any kind of electoral edge.

“So when will Sunak call the election?”, SW1 has incessantly pondered in recent months. That said, only a few possibilities tend to be considered — with speculators sliding between them as the momentum of events has shifted: the prime minister could go “short”, with an election in the spring/May, potentially catching Labour off guard and centring his “stop the boats” pledge; Sunak could go “long” into the autumn/winter, making the most of an improving economy; or the PM could “very long” into January 2025, his deadline according to the Elections Act 2022, and a schedule that would grant him the maximum amount of time to shift the dial.

How Rishi Sunak could fight a ‘stop the boats election’

Critically, towards the end of 2023, political observers suggested that Sunak’s election options had been reduced to the “long” and “very long” contingencies. In the wake of historic by-election routings in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire and a confused and chaotic Conservative Party conference, a May election simply seemed electorally untenable. 

But as column inches on the broadening of the PM’s political travails and the narrowing of his election options flowed, the government issued a series of announcements which signalled its intent to boldly second-guess the commentariat. 

Empowering the obvious counter-narrative, the throughline of the government’s major announcements in late November/December was that an election would be called sooner than expected. Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement, which saw a larger than expected National Insurance cut expedited to January; the PM’s pre-Christmas confirmation to lobby journalists that an election would definitely be in 2024; and the pencilling in of the spring budget (likely the government’s last major set-piece opportunity before the next election) for the historically early date of 6 March, all operated along such lines.

Rishi Sunak confirms election will be next year, despite legal right to wait until January 2025

Indeed, these latter two pronouncements came during the news desert of Christmas recess (one of which was issued directly to the press lobby). The signalling seemed clear. The prime minister wanted Britain’s columnist class to continue to feverishly speculate about an election date and, crucially, to recast their expectations. As a consequence, it was once more roundly resolved that the PM was keeping his options when it came to election timing. 

Labour’s line

But an early signal Sunak had overreached with his election expectation management was an interview with shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, who told Sky News on 28 December that a May election is “worst kept secret in Westminster”.

The view to 2024: What next for British politics?

Breaking the Labour-Conservative twixtmas truce, which saw few party figures tour the broadcast studios, Thornberry seized on the government’s decision to announce a budget in early March. It “seems to confirm” that May is the most likely election date, she said, finger on the pulse of the parliamentary press gallery. Rarely would a statement from the shadow attorney general figure so highly in the news agenda — but SW1’s lust for election content, combined with the pre-New Year news nadir, meant Thornberry’s intervention was immediately exalted as something significant. 

In chorus, SW1 judged that Labour would now seek to call the PM’s bluff on election timing, with Sunak slated as a “bottler” if he refused to make good on his May hints. As we entered June 2024, it was foretold, Labour would begin to talk about Rishi Sunak’s Election That Never Was. 

As this new narrative developed, commentators — both sympathetic and not — began to urge the prime minister to end the election speculation and get ahead of any consequent “bottler” sledging. This arguably peaked on Thursday morning with a piece in ConservativeHome from Editor and former MP Paul Goodman, entitled “Sunak should rule out a spring election as early as this week”. Goodman stated his case persuasively:

Until or unless Downing Street rules a spring poll out, the lobby will press one of its favourite questions: namely, when will the next election take place?  The longer Number Ten fails to declare, the more speculation there will be.  And the more there is, the more cheerfully Labour will pile in – preparing to frame the Prime Minister as a ditherer if he waits until after March 6 to rule out a May poll.

In the end, it was telling that the first question the prime minister was asked when placed in front of a pool camera on Thursday afternoon was about election timing — and even more revealing was Sunak’s prepared response: “My working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year and in the meantime I’ve got lots that I want to get on with”. 

Rishi Sunak suggests general election will be in ‘second half of the year’

Such a headline-generating announcement might, all else being equal, be considered canny politics. Indeed, Labour leader Keir Starmer’s heavy-on-rhetoric, light-on-substance New Year speech was easily knocked off poll position in the news agenda by the PM’s election rearguard action. 

But Labour Party figures quickly piled on the pressure according to the agreed script. “Our unelected prime minister has yet again bottled holding the election”, Labour’s campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said in the aftermath. The prime minister is “going to be squatting for months and months in Downing Street”, Starmer himself declared.

In the end, Starmer and Sunak’s call and response felt tangibly like an election campaign had already begun. Indeed, the prime minister may want to forestall his inevitable, and inaugural, encounter with the electorate — but with the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and Reform UK all having essentially kicked off their campaigns this week, it would seem politics at large has already shifted definitely into election gear, Sunak’s assent notwithstanding. 

Keir Starmer: Exhausted UK must reject PM’s ‘pointless populist gestures’

Was an early election ever a real possibility?

Moreover, the prime minister going “long” with an election in late 2024 was, if not a political inevitability, a political necessity. Rishi Sunak’s self-preservation instincts, with polls still refusing to relent, was always likely to see the PM stretch time in this parliament to its limit. As I have written before, the question is not whether Sunak should go “long” or “short” with an election — but “how long?”.

And, critically, this brutal backdrop was not going to decisively change in the months to May — no matter how many “traps” Hunt lays at the budget or how many “rabbits” he brandishes. 

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

In fact, the prime minister is said to have made plain to his own MPs that a late election has long been his intention. With Labour intent on turning Sunak’s election-timing trump card into his political disadvantage with “squatter” and a “bottler” sledging, the refusal to publicly pronounce on this point until Thursday afternoon might reasonably be construed as a strategic misstep.

Of course, Labour’s “squatter” attack line — in the same way as a late election — has always been essentially unavoidable for Rishi Sunak. As John Major found in 1997, the optics of being seen to hold onto power past one’s time are inherently politically difficult. And the PM could be doubly exposed to this criticism, given that he remains, as opposition parties like to point out, a “man without a mandate”.

But if the “squatter” jibe was a given — the “bottler” attack line seems a consequence of recent, apparently misguided, election expectation management. Such an attack could have been avoided if the PM’s election announcement to the press lobby in December had specified his intention to go “long” — the real “open secret” in Westminster. Rather, the PM’s decision to keep Britain in feigned suspense, and crucially Keir Starmer on his toes, has proved costly in the immediate term. 

Ultimately, only time will tell whether the “bottler” narrative has definitively set in — but it seems apparent that Labour’s “squatter” sledge has been bolstered in its political potency by Sunak’s refusal to overtly pronounce on poll timing up to this point. 

Of course, Labour wants to style Sunak’s election statement as him pushing back an election and clinging on to power — having first brought forward the prospect of an early poll in late November/December. Had the prime minister, therefore, been either more coy on an election date or more authoritative in stating his intention to go “long”, we might not have seen such an attack appear for many months yet. Instead, potentially eleven months out from an election, the PM is already rubbished as a “squatter” by Labour Party apparatchiks. 

Limping to the Starting Line

Before this week began, Rishi Sunak’s dire political circumstance, lagging poll numbers and failure to shift the dial in 2023 was already constraining his ability to exercise his post-FTPA prerogative power election-calling power. The politics, still, no less than necessitates an election late this year. 

But the PM’s decision to will this power into existence in late 2023 by openly presenting an early election as a possibility has lost him the election narrative, too. It means, rather than positioning himself as working doggedly to a pencilled-in date in late 2024, Sunak is instead castigated as a “bottler” and a “squatter”.

The opposition parties want to create the impression that they are dashing for the election starting line; Rishi Sunak, this week could suggest, is limping towards a late poll.

Year-in-Review: The rejection of Rishi Sunak

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

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