Why has the Prime Minister chosen to call a general election now?

The ability to choose the timing of a general election is a significant resource in the electoral armoury of a Prime Minister. It allows a Prime Minister to go to the country at a time which is most advantageous when, for example, the opinion polls are favourable, the economy is buoyant, or events (a military victory or national sporting achievement perhaps) have conspired to generate a positive national mood.

It is, however, a diminishing resource. Parliament cannot sit for longer than five years and if a governments enters its final twelve months without holding an election, the opportunities to hold an election can rapidly diminish. If the polls are not supportive or the economic situation is unstable, a government may be forced to hold a general election at a time which is less than advantageous.

There is considerable speculation as to why the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has chosen to hold a general election in July but, whatever the reason, this is hardly a shock or snap election. The electoral clock has been running down since the start of the year and the last date on which an election could have been held is 28th January 2025.  

The Prime Minister could have chosen to go to the polls in May to coincide with the local elections which is the customary time for a general election. It is not clear why he did not choose to do so, but many had speculated that once the opportunity for a May election had passed the Prime Minister would go to the country in the Autumn.

However, the room for manoeuvre in the Autumn is relatively limited. An election could not be called until September after Parliament had returned from the summer recess. This would mean an election in mid to late October. Any later would take it beyond the end of British Summer Time. Once the clocks go back, nights begin to draw in and party activists may be less inclined to tramp the streets in search of votes, and voters may be less inclined to answer the door. A November election would probably have meant the Prime Minister would have to endure another party conference. These generally take place in September but can provide a prime opportunity for MPs and party activists to conspire against a leader struggling in the polls.

Moreover, the weather in the Autumn is altogether more unpredictable and few would relish another election in the depths of Winter. If the Prime Minister was tempted to leave it until as late as possible even his most fervent supporters would wish to avoid an election campaign which spanned the Christmas holiday.

In contrast a summer election does not seem entirely unpalatable. Notwithstanding the downpour which accompanied the Prime Minister’s announcement of the election, the weather should be fine in June and July. This will help to encourage party activists to head out onto the doorsteps once again, even if it is only a couple of months after the local elections. It may also encourage turnout, particularly amongst older voters who are more likely to vote Conservative.

The Prime Minister may also be hoping for a poll bounce if England, although perhaps not Scotland, do well in the European Football Championships which begin in mid-June and reach the quarter-final stage the week after the general election.

None of this should obscure the fact that from the government’s perspective this is not an ideal time for a general election. No Prime Minister would want to call a general election when they are twenty points behind in the polls. In fact, a Prime Minister would generally do anything they could to avoid an election in such circumstances. It is clear that many Conservative MPs think the PM should wait, in the hope that the situation improves. The only reason you would not do that is if you genuinely believed the government’s position might get worse.

The fall in the rate of inflation which was announced on the same day as the general election may provide the Prime Minister with a crumb of comfort. Although ironically this good news has been knocked off the front pages by the general election announcement. However, if the government has chosen to pin its hopes for electoral victory on this tentative sign of economic recovery that may be because they do not expect it to be sustained.

The summer may also reveal the weakness of some of the government’s other policies. Most notably its immigration policy. The Prime Minister may have been tempted to wait for the first flight to leave for Rwanda, but it is far from clear when that might be. Moreover, the small number of asylum seekers sent to Rwanda are likely to be eclipsed by the large numbers who will almost inevitably arrive on the South Coast in small boats across the summer months.

The simple fact is, no matter how bad the current situation is for the government, with barely six months to go before he is forced to call an election, the Prime Minister may well have calculated that this is as good as it gets. It is hard to disagree.

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