The next general election must, by law, be held before the end of January 2025. Since Boris Johnson’s government repealed David Cameron’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the decision rests with the prime minister, and Rishi Sunak will want to hold the election when he has the best chance of success. He will need to consider the strength of his political position and whether his party is ready. He then has three choices.
The strength of his political position
For more than a year, the Conservatives have been at least 15 points behind Labour in the opinion polls, and the gap has sometimes reached 30 points. Those gaps would guarantee a substantial Labour majority. Sunak hopes that his five priorities will narrow the gap, but so far little progress has happened on any of them:
The economy (three of his five priorities): governments rarely win election when the economy is doing badly. Most forecasts suggest that it will get better slowly, from a low base, over coming months (though not particularly as a result of anything the government can do)
Cutting NHS waiting lists: currently waiting lists are still rising, aggravated by doctors’ industrial action. Projections suggest the NHS elective waiting list may not fall until June next year, but negotiations have reopened over the industrial dispute.
Stopping the small boats: Sunak can point out that he has passed legislation designed to stop small boats, but it remains to be seen whether this has any effect. Because of the weather, small boat crossings peak in late summer, so in the autumn he could probably point to a fall (again not mainly due to government action).
Many other factors may affect public opinion. They include more by-elections, the Supreme Court decision on Rwanda deportations, and reports from the Covid-19 Inquiry.
The Labour party might begin to lose support because of its own decisions or behaviour. Most recently, Keir Starmer’s position on the Israel/Hamas conflict has weakened Labour support in some places, but it is too soon to know how serious, and long-lasting that might be.
Sunak will want the Conservative party to be as united as possible, and with its election campaign ready to move. Producing a convincing political vision and manifesto may be difficult and take time, given the very deep divisions within the party. And they need to find replacements for the more than 50 sitting Conservative MPs who are standing down.
What are the most likely times for the general election?
There are broadly three scenarios for when the prime minister will hold an election:
Early election: May 2024
General elections usually take place in spring or early summer, often in May, at the same time as local elections, to reduce costs and improve turnout. A May election gives him little time to demonstrate achievements, but it avoids the risk of poor local election results (as happened in May 2023) damaging the party reputation in a later general election.
A May election would allow time for the incoming government to carry out a full spending review for the following financial year. That makes it possible for them to implement new policies relatively rapidly.
An autumn 2024 election
An autumn election offers a compromise, allowing more time for the party’s fortunes to improve, but avoiding the problems of a midwinter election. There are two options here. An election in late September or early October would mean cancelling the party conferences, which are important fundraisers for the parties, and provide a public platform to lay out election promises.
The alternative would be to call the election in the last week of conferences, producing an election date in mid November. Again, it would be too late for the incoming government to hold a full spending review, but some changes would be possible, and there would be time to set the local authority budgets, which happens in December.
A winter 2025 election
The election must be held before the end of January 2025, but no election has been held in January since 1910. It would give Sunak the maximum time to deliver on its promises. But a campaign running over Christmas would be unpopular with voters (and party workers). Weather and daylight would limit campaigning and reduce turnout. It would be too late for an incoming government to hold a spending review, so they would be bound for another year to the present government’s spending plans.
One problem with a November (or January) election is that it would coincide with the very contentious election of a new President in the USA. That promises to attract a lot of attention, and potential confusion. The result could sway public opinion unpredictably in the UK. On the global scale, having two of the world’s major democracies leaderless at the same time is risky.
So when will the election be?
None of the options are ideal for Sunak. January is probably the least likely and on balance, May or October both seem more likely. But we will have to wait and see. The polling picture has been remarkably stable for months now. If there were to be an uptick in the Conservative polling, he might be tempted to go sooner.
An article about election timings based on the work of the Institute for Government can be found here.