‘My working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year,” Rishi Sunak told ITV last week, adding that he has “lots to get on with” and wants to keep going. But a working assumption is not a commitment, and the Treasury’s decision to bring forward the budget to March 6 – the very last day on which it could be used to launch an election timed for May 2 – still gives Sunak the option of going early.
For the sake of the country, I wish he would. As a Labour supporter I am, of course, champing at the bit to get on the doorstep and fight for a landslide. But we are now at a stage where delaying an election until November could have serious negative consequences for the country, and for global politics, not just for the Tories.
First, because Sunak’s government lacks full democratic legitimacy. His majority was won on Boris Johnson’s manifesto, whose credibility evaporated along with the believability of its author. Johnsonism was premised on fiscal expansion and a determination to place Britain at the centre of a global fightback for free trade. But the Ukraine war, and Liz Truss’s disastrous 49 days in office, followed by the flatlining economy guaranteed by the policies of Hunt and Sunak, have completely altered economic conditions. We’re in a world of high inflation, high government borrowing costs, permanent austerity and rising geopolitical risk.
If Sunak has a vision for how Britain emerges positively from such circumstances, it is not one that he has shared with the public. Instead, he has adopted a routine of meaningless pledges, manic rants and rancid attacks on wokeness designed to shore up the core Tory vote, which is haemorrhaging towards Reform UK.
It’s a political survival strategy, not a national renewal strategy – and though, like all politicians, he has a right to be partisan to the point of self-destruction, the months between May and November matter. Professional candour dictates there is no way the civil service will let ministers go on setting new policies beyond mid-July. They are already preparing the Briefing Books they will present to Labour’s shadow front bench at the moment they are allowed to begin access talks, which the Institute for Government believes should be this month.
At that point they will hear, at a depth that might surprise them, what Labour’s plan for government entails. They will compare this with the fag end of the Johnson-Truss-Sunak project and impose an effective moratorium on major decisions. This won’t be about big-ticket stuff like HS2. It’ll be the small-scale projects that, in every department, permanent secretaries will know are pointless to go on with.
Then, in a global economy adrift, and amid a worsening geopolitical crisis, we will have a powerless government – its front bench scraped from closer to the bottom of the barrel than any of us could imagine in 2019.
The honourable thing to do, even if Rishi Sunak wants to cling on until autumn, would be to spell out his long-term plan now: to stop talking about hard choices and actually take some. That would involve a serious plan to cut waiting times and improve service quality in the NHS; it would involve a housebuilding plan to deliver six-figure totals of new housing every year for the rest of the decade; and a solution to the £17bn black hole in the defence equipment budget, a figure that discounts the “unknown” costs of buying everything the Ministry of Defence is committed to.
The truth is, the next election will be about what kind of country we want to be. The Tories will want to talk about wokeness, reducing migration and the inhumanity of nursery provision – because that’s what they have to focus on just to save themselves from oblivion. Labour will want to talk about jobs, housing, healthcare and – in a spectacular role reversal – opposition to cuts in the armed forces.
Until we allow voters to answer this question, there is no long-term investment story for business, nothing for the hundreds of thousands of talented migrants we need to actually buy into, and no pole star for Britain’s young to set their career compass by.
I spoke, recently, to a career British diplomat who told me our embassy in New Zealand routinely loses 50% of the young people posted there, because they simply decide to stay. That’s what having a clear national narrative can achieve: it gives every business and every aspirational young person an idea of how they might succeed.
Until we know whether we’re going to go for investment-led growth, as Labour wants, or another attempt at tax-cutting our way to oblivion, with Miriam Cates tapping out coded far right messaging on bongos, we don’t have a predictable future.
So Sunak owes it to the people of Britain to put his five-year economic plan into the March budget, and put that straight to the electorate.
The reason he might not is clear: Brexit means that all Britain’s choices are really hard. With investment flatlining and growth stagnant there is a malaise, a despondency, a routine cynicism and a grassroots nastiness seeping through all public discourse.
I expect, if we are lucky enough to see an election called in the first week of March, it will be a battle of the purposely emptied vessels. Sunak will focus on the culture war; Labour will avoid the fiscal specifics; there’ll be enough scandal and personality politics to keep the media entertained. Only once Labour wins will we find out just how bad things are.
We deserve better, from our democracy, than the games Rishi Sunak is playing. A spring election may not put us out of our misery, but it will at least let us move to the next stage of it.