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The deluge: Rishi Sunak’s election gamble

‘Only a Conservative government, led by me, will not put our hard-earned economic stability at risk,’ said Rishi Sunak as he announced a general election on the steps of Downing Street in the pouring rain. Upon these words, the Labour anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ boomed out from the street. The din made the rest of his speech nearly inaudible. His suit jacket went from wet to soaking. ‘It’s bizarre,’ said one former minister. ‘How are we supposed to trust No. 10’s judgment when no one in the group even knows what an umbrella is?’ 

Sunak’s gamble is that while he can’t get a hearing in government, he might get one in a short election campaign 

A few hours earlier, almost no one in the cabinet had any inkling that the Prime Minister was about to lead them into battle. They had dismissed the rumours of a summer election as wild speculation. 

‘To go now would be a death wish,’ said one cabinet minister yesterday morning. ‘I quite like my job and don’t want to end it.’ Yes, the cabinet meeting had been moved from Tuesday to Wednesday, but Sunak had been travelling so his schedule was off kilter. The election speculation was chalked up as crossed wires. The last prime minister to spring an election on the cabinet with no prior discussion was Theresa May. That did not end well. Would Sunak really tempt fate like this?

But for weeks the Prime Minister has held the view that an election campaign should be launched as soon as enough decent economic news comes through. First, it turned out the UK economy grew faster than expected at the start of the year. Next, inflation fell. Those pieces of news were enough, he thought, to make his pitch: that he has a plan – and Labour doesn’t. 

There were dissenting voices around the cabinet table. Esther McVey, who Sunak calls his ‘minister for common sense’, said voters may not feel enough economic improvement at this stage to swing the vote, but they might if an election was held in November. Several others in the cabinet agreed, although none said so at the time. ‘Going now doesn’t make sense,’ one said before yesterday’s meeting. ‘We will have more to point to on the economy and migration by the autumn.’ Chris Heaton-Harris – the Northern Ireland Secretary – also voiced concerns. But he’s standing down at the election and said he’d support the Prime Minister’s decision.

Sunak came to the view that there is little evidence so far to suggest that waiting for better economic weather would lead to greater Tory support. After ten months of real-terms wage increases, for example, the polls have barely moved. As John Major found in 1997, economic recoveries don’t always translate into political ones. 

The hope in CCHQ and Downing Street is that calling an election now will focus minds and mean the Tories are at least heard. ‘A lot of voters are currently not listening,’ says a minister. The thinking is that, with an election, voters – especially those who are usually politically minded – will sit up and pay attention. ‘Now is the time for the country to look at the actual choice they have,’ says a senior government figure. Sunak’s gamble is that while he can’t get a hearing in government, he might get one in a short election campaign. 

The Tories will fight the election on the economy and the idea that Sunak brought stability to the country. The second part of the campaign will be to position him as a leader willing to hold unpopular positions when he believes they are right (such as on Covid lockdowns, welfare reform and the need to moderate net zero). At yesterday’s cabinet meeting, Sunak’s close ally and protégé Claire Coutinho opted not to complain about the election and instead praised her boss as a man unafraid to stand up for what he believes in. Starmer will be attacked as a weathervane, who holds whatever position suits him that day. 

Victory may look unlikely but, as the last ten years of elections have often showed, polls can be wrong and experts can be confounded. That said, few in Sunak’s party believe his timing is anything other than an attempt to lose less badly. Isaac Levido, the Tory election strategist, has previously been of the view that waiting until autumn is the best option. Others, such as the deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden and James Forsyth, formerly of this parish, are said to have seen the merits of going sooner. However, the final decision was ultimately Sunak’s. His circle has been divided: on current polls, most Tory MPs will not be returning to their jobs. Those with the safest seats have been the ones most likely to say that holding an election when the party is 20 points behind in the polls is worth the risk.  

For some Tory MPs, the election call was so inexplicable they refused to believe it at first. An hour before Sunak’s announcement, when a July poll was being reported as fact, some were walking around parliament insisting it could not be the case. The optics of the campaign launch was not terribly auspicious. The protestors were on song and the rain had been falling long before the lectern was positioned in front of No. 10. ‘It’s all too much of a metaphor,’ said one MP. 

And what about the tax cuts Jeremy Hunt was promising? He had spoken of another ‘fiscal event’ before the election, but it was never clear how his giveaways would be paid for. Then there are potentially unpleasant surprises: increases in the NHS waiting list when the number is supposed to be falling, for example. More embarrassing immigration figures. Or perhaps the prospect of summer riots in prisons or coming HGV licence changes that could mean lorries crossing into Europe are held up in endless queues. 

No prime minister has ever called an election from 20 points behind and won. One cabinet member said just before the election was called that a good result would be retaining 200 MPs (implying a landslide Labour majority) and a bad result would be keeping just 50-odd. ‘Our best message in this campaign is saying that we’re going to lose, but Labour doesn’t deserve a crushing majority,’ said another cabinet member. ‘But we can’t say so. We have to pretend that we stand a chance of winning.’

CCHQ has a few lines of varying plausibility to raise morale among MPs. One is to point to the national polling share in the recent local elections, which was closer to a ten-point Labour lead than the 20 points suggested in general election polling. But many Tory MPs believe those results were dire and hardly constitute a launch pad from which to take the decision to the country. ‘I don’t know what they are thinking,’ says a concerned MP, ‘other than maybe they want it all done now.’ Nadine Dorries, the Boris Johnson loyalist who quit in protest at Sunak’s refusal to ennoble her, claimed that Sunak wants to go early because the Californian school term starts in August.

On the right of the party, some MPs are pleased because they believe the failure of the supposedly ‘wet’ Sunak would pave the way for someone more radical in opposition. But it’s not clear who that candidate would be. Kemi Badenoch remains the bookmakers’ favourite and the shadow Tory leadership election will be a subplot throughout the upcoming campaign. 

All of this is seen by Labour as richly comic. Shadow ministers were truly taken by surprise at Sunak’s decision and the party’s strategists had been reluctantly coming round to the likelihood of an autumn election. But Starmer had his election speech ready and rehearsed. Morgan McSweeney, his main lieutenant, has long believed that an election before the autumn was probable. Labour’s manifesto is nearly complete, and many policy announcements are ready to go. The final document should be thin and simple: Starmer wants to get away with saying as little as he can, to present as small a target as possible.

Might the Tories have some ammunition by 4 July? There are still some who claim a Rwanda flight mid-campaign is possible, ideally with enough time to also demonstrate a deterrent effect. However, this seems unlikely. Instead, part of the reasoning behind going earlier than planned was concern that lawyers would bring system legal challenges that could tie it all up.

Sunak is taking the classic underdog approach to debates: to say ‘yes’ to everything and try to portray Starmer as a shyster on the run should (as the Tories expect) he try to limit his appearances to just two or three debates.

‘How are we supposed to trust No. 10’s judgment when no one in the group even knows what an umbrella is?’

The Tories want to have a special broadcast focus on GB News. In the words of one campaign figure: ‘It is the most important election channel.’ The reason for this is its viewership among the coalition of Tory voters that Johnson assembled in 2019. BoJo himself will be asked to join the campaign trail to woo these voters back. David Cameron, whose return to government seems destined to be short-lived, will be deployed in the Lib Dem-facing seats.

In Scotland, the SNP is facing a massacre as John Swinney, its caretaker leader, is plunged into battle after just a few weeks as First Minister. Labour is hoping to take about 20 seats from the SNP and the Tories about five, but the result should mean that Swinney stands aside after the campaign and Kate Forbes, his deputy, picks up the pieces. 

Perhaps the biggest single Tory hope is that Reform may implode or, at least, never get the chance to develop into a genuinely national political party. As an opinion poll option, Reform is the preference of about 12 per cent of the public. But it has few candidates, no national apparatus, no get-out-and-vote operation. If it fails to present itself as an electoral force, then at least some of its voters will be up for grabs. Just as the contraction of Nigel Farage’s Ukip vote in 2015 took Cameron over the line for a majority, the Tories would be the beneficiaries should Richard Tice’s party seem more irrelevant in a general election than in the locals.

This is, perhaps, the Tories’ best chance for a miracle. ‘When you look at the polls, Reform and the Tories are backed by about half of the country,’ says one of the more optimistic cabinet members. ‘We think the same things as the country think, and Labour doesn’t really think anything. The argument should not be too hard to win.’ The worry, though, is that Farage springs a political comeback in the coming days.

Anyone who does think the Tories will win should, of course, go to the bookmakers, who are offering odds of 25-to-one on a Tory majority. It’s hard to think of a Conservative government that has faced more daunting odds. ‘We could win: stranger things have happened,’ says one former leadership contender. ‘It’s just that I can’t think of any.’ Yet for all their doubts over Sunak’s strategy, Tory MPs have little option but to back him and hope for the best. 

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