Why U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Called for Snap Elections on July 4th Across the United Kingdom

On Wednesday afternoon May 22, 2024, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak kicked off what might be the most depressing election campaign launch in British history. After hours of speculation, Sunak appeared outside Number 10 in the pouring rain without an umbrella. He announced that, in his words, "now is the moment for Britain to choose its future." However, nearby anti-Tory protesters blaring "Things Can Only Get Better" – one of New Labour's anthems during their 1997 victory – drowned out most of his speech.  


Sunak then rushed off to a conference center in London for his first campaign event. Unfortunately, anything he said was overshadowed by the fact that his security forcibly removed Sky News reporters. These reporters had guessed where he was going to speak in advance. In a very English way, the accosted reporter narrated his removal, saying, "I'm being forcibly removed. We simply wanted to have access tonight at Sky News, but unfortunately, we're told that because there were pool arrangements in place, we're not allowed."


As you can probably tell from the frantic nature of our coverage and that of every other British media outlet, many are wondering: Are you looking forward to the election? Can you win it?


This all came as a bit of a shock. Sunak had always maintained that the election would happen in the second half of the year. However, the consensus was that he was talking about the Autumn when things might have improved for him, not now when he's more than 20 points behind in the polls, and a wipeout looks pretty much inevitable.  


Sunak's decision has even bemused his party. Cabinet ministers almost immediately began furiously texting journalists, complaining they weren't warned and had no idea why he had done it. Backbench Tories are so unhappy about the decision that they're trying to stop the election from happening by staging a motion of no confidence in Sunak before Parliament is formally dissolved.


In this video, we will explain why everyone thought he'd call the election in Autumn and provide six possible theories for why he called it now instead.


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Let's start by explaining why everyone thought it would be in the Autumn. In short, the conventional thinking was that the NHS, the economy, and the UK's immigration crisis (at least as it's perceived by conservatives) would all be improved by the Autumn. This would allow Sunak to campaign on a "the hard work paid off" platform.


For instance, NHS waiting lists are expected to fall below 6 million by the end of this year and to a 10-year low by the end of next year. This is thanks to waning Covid pressure, extra NHS capacity, and the end of junior doctor strikes.


In the last couple of weeks, we've learned that the UK economy has returned to growth, and inflation has fallen to near the Bank of England's 2% target. If things continue in that direction by the Autumn, interest rates might have come down, and real wages might be going up.


Net migration is also due to start falling later this year as the tighter visa regime for students and skilled workers begins to bite. This will only become clear when the ONS figures are updated in the Autumn. Additionally, the deterrent effect of the Rwanda plan, if it exists, will only become apparent by the end of this year.


On top of this, some Tories hope that an Autumn election would minimize the chances of Nigel Farage returning to the Reform Party. This is because he'd be too busy cozying up to Trump in the US ahead of the presidential election.


So why on Earth has Sunak gone for a summer election instead, given he's something like 20 points behind in the polls? Well, the honest answer is no one knows for sure, but we've come up with six possible reasons that might have convinced Sunak to jump the gun.


The first is that he has simply had enough of being the second most unpopular prime minister in living memory after Liz Truss, and he just wants to pack it in. This might sound like a cheap partisan shot at Sunak, but it's not intended as one. For starters, being prime minister at the moment does genuinely look like a miserable job. However, this is also the choice explanation for many well-connected, well-informed right-wing commentators in the UK other than "Rishi Sunak had enough and wants out."


The second possible reason is that he wants to surprise the Reform Party. Given Reform could only muster 300 or so council candidates at the local elections a couple of weeks ago, there's zero chance that they can field 632 viable candidates between now and July 4th. This prospect of chaos has deterred Farage from getting involved, which is genuinely great news for Sunak.


The third reason could be that he wants to surprise Labour because they were also expecting an Autumn election. Labor hasn't quite finished their manifesto, and Sunak might be hoping that by forcing them to speed-write their policy platform without giving Starmer time to build consensus, he'll be able to trigger some Labour infighting, exacerbating the current internal divisions over Gaza.


The fourth possibility is that Sunak thinks this is his best chance at fighting an economic election. If he waits until the Autumn, it's very possible the big issue for voters would be something other than the economy. The worst of inflation might have died down, and voters might instead be more focused on something like immigration if small boat crossings had gone up over the summer, or sewage if water companies dumped even more sewage in the UK's rivers this year than they did last year.


Even though the economic headlines aren't amazing, things are nonetheless improving, and it's clearly the topic Sunak feels most comfortable talking about. He might also be thinking that it's one of his best avenues to attack Labour, as the economy has historically been a political weak spot for them. Additionally, their commitment to matching the Tories' restrictive spending targets means that there's not actually that much difference between the two main parties on this issue.


The fifth potential reason is that, contrary to popular opinion, things aren't going to get better in the Autumn. Inflation is stubbornly above target, which means the interest rate cuts and the relief that comes with them for mortgage holders now look unlikely. Growth isn't strong enough to justify pre-election tax cuts either.


Similarly, if the Rwanda plan doesn't work as a deterrent, then Sunak is better off going now rather than later in the year when the plan will look even more expensive and ineffective. Going now also denies the Conservatives and Labour their annual party conferences, which is good news for the Conservatives given their conference would be beset by furious infighting, and bad news for Labour given that they were expected to rake in loads of donations at theirs.


The sixth and final possible reason is simply that Sunak knows something we don't, and that there's some absolutely enormous catastrophe coming down the track for the British state. Maybe it's a TSB bailout, which would cost either customers or the taxpayer billions of pounds. Maybe it's something that Simon Case is about to discuss during his appearance in front of the Covid inquiry today. Who knows? This sort of information asymmetry would also explain why Sunak has come to a different conclusion than everyone else, without in some way implying he's being foolish. Unfortunately, though, simply no one other than Sunak knows for sure why he called it when he did.

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