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Why has UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an early general election?

On a wet Wednesday afternoon last week, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called a surprise general election for 4 July, an unprecedented move for a leader sitting at least 20 points behind the opposition Labour Party in the polls.


Having already disregarded the natural choice of a combined general and local election in May and with Christmas election campaigns highly unpopular, most commentators had expected the PM to wait for autumn and give more time for the Conservatives to close the gap to Labour in the polls. Mr Sunak’s choice of July has therefore baffled many—and blindsided even his own cabinet ministers—as it appears to hasten the electoral drubbing projected for his party.


So, has the Prime Minister finally got fed up with life in Number 10, or are there actually valid tactical reasons for a July election, even with his party so far behind in the polls? And where will the battle lines of this campaign be drawn?


The logic for an early poll?


Former Chancellor George Osborne has claimed that the Prime Minister decided to call this election following the result of the local elections on 2 May, keeping the plan secret from all but a “wide circle of up to 40 people” involved in election planning.[1] The perhaps questionable logic for a July election is that because none of the traditionally popular policies the Conservatives have implemented are improving their position in the polls, seizing the initiative is their best option. But why call it now?


The Economy


A major explanation for the exact timing of the PM’s decision lies in last Wednesday’s ostensibly positive news that UK inflation fell to 2.3 per cent in April, just above the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent. This follows news earlier this month that the UK economy grew 0.6 per cent in Q1 of 2024, the fastest in nearly three years. While these figures will do little to ease the UK’s cost-of-living crisis in the short term—given the continued crippling effect of high rents and mortgages—calling an election now means the Conservative campaign can kick off with the positive message that “the plan is working”.


It is worth noting that the inflation data Mr Sunak championed are actually less positive than expected, with underlying core and services inflation remaining stubborn and a steep fall in energy prices from last year providing the greatest impetus for the reduction.[2] The Bank of England may not necessarily have been able to cut interest rates before an autumn poll, then, as many had expected. In combination with a warning from the IMF that the country faces an estimated £30bn hole in its public finances, this left Chancellor Jeremy Hunt knowing he would have been unable to make any more tax cuts this year, rendering any delay of the election to the autumn on economic grounds pointless.[3]


The release of April’s inflation figures may therefore present a small ‘sweet spot’ of positive news for the Government before another harsh economic reality sets in. In truth, though, it is highly unlikely that the benefits of lower inflation will be felt by the electorate in the short period before the election. The disastrous mini-Budget of October 2022, which in the eyes of many voters is the reason mortgages and rents started to soar, will likely remain at the forefront of their minds when they consider who to trust on the handling of the economy. It remains to be seen, then, if this recent economic data will help the Conservatives regain voters’ trust on this matter—undoubtedly a key election battleground.


Migration


Another significant focus in this election will be migration. Indeed, the timing of Wednesday’s surprise election call may even have been prompted by news from the Home Office which revealed legal migration fell significantly in the first four months of 2024, following government measures to tighten visa criteria.[4] Mr Sunak may also have had foreknowledge that net migration figures set to be published the following day would show a drop in the number of people entering the UK. Or, he may have simply been gambling. Either way, a 10 per cent reduction in net migration to the UK was reported by the Office for National Statistics on Thursday.


These figures allow Mr Sunak to campaign on somewhat credible evidence of his government’s ability to reduce net migration. Yet, as with the economic data, it is too soon to say this is “the start of a new downward trend”.[5] Migration is an especially important policy area for the Conservative leader, as a tough image will allow him to appeal to more right-wing elements of the country and ward off the rising threat from Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party. Some of the Prime Minister’s strongest political messaging has focused on his efforts to reduce migration, whether by introducing stricter visa entry criteria or by deterring small boat crossings through the controversial Rwanda scheme.


Mr Sunak’s admission on Thursday morning that flights carrying asylum seekers to Rwanda would not take off until after the election means he will gain very little tangible electoral dividends from that policy, though, beyond what the mere prospect of flights taking off will bring him.[6] Still, by calling a July election, the Prime Minister does at least avoid the risk of running a campaign after a whole summer of likely record small boat arrivals, while he will also be able to somewhat legitimately point to falling legal migration numbers as progress on one of his government’s key priorities.


The impact on other parties


Mr Sunak may also have considered other potential benefits to calling a July election, such as avoiding a clash with the US election in November, riding a potential feel-good summer factor—especially if England perform well in the European Championships—or catching the Conservatives’ opponents unprepared.[7]


The latter may indeed prove accurate, with Reform UK now scrambling to swiftly vet the 630 candidates they have promised to field in Great Britain in this election. The party has previously selected candidates mired in controversies over Islamophobia and climate change denial, leaving them open to attack. Most significantly for the Conservatives, Nigel Farage, the honorary president of Reform UK and a consistent thorn in the Tories’ side, has announced that he will not be standing as an MP for Reform, as six weeks is “not long enough” for him to fight a constituency seat while campaigning around the country.[8]


For Labour’s part, at least 100 of their candidates are yet to be unveiled.[9] However, leader Sir Keir Starmer has long been calling for a general election, and in a televised statement on Wednesday he appeared to relish the upcoming campaign, presenting his party as the clear option for economic and political stability in contrast to the “chaos” of the Conservatives. Stressing the need for change, Sir Keir also referenced the dire state of NHS waiting times in the UK, a subject which will no doubt also play a significant part in the election to come.

While the timing of this election will have been a surprise for the Labour leader, given the magnitude of his party’s present poll lead, the end result will likely not be.


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