Rishi Sunak’s dilemma: when to hold an election he looks set to lose

No question in British politics will be more regularly asked and reliably dismissed over the coming months than when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak considers calling the country’s next general election.

He must do so by January 2025. Conventional wisdom is that with his Conservative Party 20 percentage points behind the opposition Labor Party in the polls, Mr Sunak will wait as long as he can. Given that Brits don’t like election campaigns around Christmas or in the dead of winter, this would suggest a vote next fall.

But some of Mr Sunak’s colleagues last week insisted on an earlier timetable. Having lost a critical judgment on his flagship immigration policy, the Prime Minister has come under pressure from the right of his party to go to the polls in the spring if the House of Lords blocks the government’s efforts to revise legislation aimed at deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. .

Turning the election into a referendum on immigration could distract attention from Britain’s economic woes. But this assumes that voters might be persuaded to turn to the Conservatives out of fear of seeing asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats, rather than blaming the party for a stagnant economy, a crisis in the cost of life and public services gutted.

The British Supreme Court last week declared the policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda illegal. But Mr Sunak pledged to keep the deal alive by negotiating a new treaty with the East African country that would include a legally binding commitment not to deport migrants sent by Britain – l one of the Court’s objections.

Mr Sunak also promised emergency legislation that would make Rwanda a safe country for asylum seekers. It is unclear whether this would survive legal challenges and the House of Lords, the unelected upper house of Parliament which has the right to review legislation and could block it (although its appetite for a full-scale conflict with the government was not clear). .)

“I know the British people will want this new law passed so that we can get the flights to Rwanda off the ground,” Mr Sunak told reporters last week. “Whether it’s the House of Lords or the Labor Party that stands in our way, I will take them on because I want this thing done and I want to stop the boats.”

Political analysts say immigration remains a live issue in the north of England and the Midlands, where support for the Conservatives in 2019 gave the party a landslide victory in the general election. These voters, many of whom traditionally supported the Labor Party, were attracted by the Conservative slogan “Let’s Get Brexit Done”.

“Immigration is now the top priority for 2019 Conservative Party voters, even before the cost of living crisis and the dire state of the country’s national health care system,” said Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, who has written on populism and identity politics.

“This means, in short, that Rishi Sunak has no way of winning the next election unless he connects with these voters by reducing immigration and regaining control of the country’s borders,” he said. -he declares. “Yet both of these things currently seem unlikely.”

Far from speeding up the date of an election, Professor Goodwin argued that the importance of immigration would push Mr Sunak to delay the vote. It will take months to overcome legal issues with the current policy, the professor said, let alone launch one-way flights to Rwanda.

Other experts are more skeptical that an election dominated by immigration would work to the conservatives’ advantage. Most voters have a negative view of the party on immigration, said Sophie Stowers, a researcher at UK in a Changing Europe, a London-based think tank. The number of people crossing the Channel has remained stubbornly high since Mr Sunak became Prime Minister, while legal migration has soared.

“To me, it seems counterintuitive to draw attention to an issue where you have a poor public image,” Ms. Stowers said.

The question is whether the Conservatives would do even worse if the election were decided on the basis of the economy, which matters more than migration to voters overall, according to opinion polls. Mr Sunak effectively achieved one of his main economic goals last week, namely cutting the inflation rate in half. But it still has to achieve the other two: revive growth and reduce public debt.

It is not yet certain that economic news will improve between spring and fall, analysts say. Even though inflation has calmed, the lingering effect of rising interest rates – propelled higher by Liz Truss’ market-shaking tax policies last year – is still rippling through the economy in the form of an increase in real estate mortgage rates.

Historically, many successful prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, have called elections earlier than necessary, rather than risk falling victim to unforeseen events. They usually opt for the summer months, when the weather – and public mood – are generally better, although Boris Johnson managed to break this trend with his victory in December 2019.

Mr Sunak’s room for maneuver is limited. One option would be to hold the vote in May 2024, to coincide with local elections, or in June. Another possibility would be October or November, which would coincide with the elections in the United States. But the possibility of a Donald J. Trump victory could have an unpredictable effect, potentially pushing some British voters toward a more centrist option. As a last resort, Mr Sunak could wait until January 28, 2025.

Some of Mr Sunak’s predecessors paid a high price for miscalculating the election timetable. Despite speculation that he would call an election in 1978, Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan delayed the vote until the following year. Labor unrest escalated into what became known as the “winter of discontent”, leading Mrs Thatcher to victory in 1979.

Gordon Brown, another Labor prime minister, was expected to capitalize on his initial popularity by calling an election soon after succeeding Tony Blair in 2007. Instead, he delayed, eventually losing power in 2010.

Theresa May took the opposite decision, calling a snap election in 2017 in which she lost her majority, but probably more because of her unpopular program and poor voting skills than bad timing.

“Once the election starts, everything is on the table,” said polling expert Peter Kellner. “You lose control of the agenda.”

Trying to build an election campaign around the issue of small boats carrying migrants will likely fail, Mr Kellner added, suggesting Mr Sunak will only call an early vote if he believes he has a realistic prospect of retaining his job.

“If, when you have to make a decision, you have no chance of winning, you might as well wait,” he said, “because there is perhaps a five percent chance of winning in six months, and a five percent chances of winning. A percentage chance is better than no luck.

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