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Clock's Ticking: When will Rishi Sunak call the general election?

Rishi Sunak has confirmed that the election will not be held on 2nd May, which was the earliest date many hoped for. This news will frustrate political opposition, who are increasingly eager to boot the Tories out of office.

But for Sunak, buying time is the best strategy. Considering his current polling deficit to Labour, which YouGov currently has at 24 points, calling a May election would be suicidal.

Alternatively, waiting could make the situation even worse, with his party turning against him, and continual failure on his key policy pledges.

I still believe that he will hold the election in November, just after the party conference season. Sunak’s target for 2024 is to make progress on immigration, the economy, and NHS waiting lists, and hope that everyone forgets about the last 14 years of incompetent governance.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, people don’t forget that easily. Sunak needs a miracle to save his party from obliteration. The boats are still coming, NHS waiting lists remain high, and the economy is stagnant.

He really is stuck between a rock and a hard place, as neither a snap election or the waiting game seem like good options. The clock is ticking for Rishi Sunak, and the public are eager for a new government.

Buying Time?

Sunak’s current economic record is nothing short of bleak, but he and Hunt keep insisting that the country ‘has turned a corner’. The later the election, the better his chances of delivering tangible economic growth.

And 2024 looks to have started well, with the economy growing by 0.2% in January, and the UK probably already out of recession. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that the economy will grow by 0.8% this year, and that inflation will fall below 2% by summer. If this comes to fruition, it will give Sunak some economic achievements to cite on the campaign trail.

However, the cost-of-living crisis is by no means over. Since 2010, the Conservatives have presided over a low growth, high tax economy, which has squeezed living standards. A year of mild economic growth certainly won’t outweigh 13 years of stagnation in the minds of voters.

The damage to the party’s reputation has already been done. Sunak has months not years to turn the economy around, and it all seems a little too late to claim that the economy has ‘turned a corner’.

Another policy focus for Sunak in 2024 is his Rwanda illegal migration scheme. The government hopes to have the first flights take off in May, over 2 years after the policy was initially announced. Sunak will emerge triumphant against everything that slowed down the scheme, with the House of Lords, Supreme Court, and Conservative MPs all frustrating his efforts over the last year. By delaying the election, Sunak can cite tackling illegal immigration as a major success for his government.

Unfortunately for Sunak, this all comes with a big asterisk. As things stand, each migrant has a right of appeal after the government requests their deportation, which will take up to 10 weeks. To solve this, the government’s plans to offer £3000 to each asylum seeker to move to Rwanda voluntarily. Having already spent around £220 million on the scheme, with more money due to be sent to Kigali, this desperate measure will only add to the taxpayer’s already extortionate bill.

The amount spent on Rwanda is political gold dust for Labour, who can show how many houses we could have built, nurses we could have hired, or extra cost-of-living payments could have been made with all of that money. We should have known back in November, when immigration minister Robert Jenrick resigned before the bill went to Parliament, that this entire Rwanda scheme was a futile endeavour. So even if flights do take off, the damage is already done, and it arguably doesn’t matter when he calls the election.

The NHS waiting list is a key issue for voters, and one that if Sunak buys time, could see significant improvements. Recent figures show that England’s waiting list fell for the 4th consecutive month. This looks a positive development for Rishi Sunak, and legitimises delaying the election to allow more progress to be made.

However, the scale of this task is far too great. The waiting list still remains around 7.5 million, and researchers suggest that even in a best case scenario, they won’t go below pre-Covid levels until late 2027. Sunak can claim all he wants that the waiting lists would be lower without strike action, but the government negotiated for months before finally giving in to their pay demands. Had the economy been stronger, the government may have given nurses a pay rise sooner, rather than negotiating for months and allowing the strikes to continue.

Time is running out to fix this healthcare crisis, and the Conservatives only have themselves to blame. On the campaign trail, regardless of what month that may be, Sunak will struggle to say anything meaningful about the NHS.

Doomed whatever he does

Sunak is doomed whatever he does, and things aren’t getting any easier for him. With Lee Anderson’s defection to Reform UK, cabinet ministers scheming to replace him, and a Spring Budget that has produced no increase in the polls, 2024 is yet to see the miraculous turnaround that he desperately needs.

Faction is rife within the Conservative party and Labour are in the ascendency. If he wants any chance of his party being electable in the future, after their inevitable defeat, he needs to turn things around very quickly. His only hope is preventing total annihilation and giving the Tories a chance to recover after Starmer’s first term.

No matter when he calls the election, things look bleak for Sunak.

Image: Finbarr Webster/Getty Images

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