Adam Boulton: MPs are heading back to Westminster – but are they all keeping an eye on a looming election? | Politics News
MPs are returning to Westminster on Monday for the rapidly accelerating downhill run to the next general election.
Thanks to Boris Johnson’s success in repealing the Fixed Term Parliament Act there is no precise guidance as to when that date with political destiny will be.
The next general election could even take place the year after next.
If this parliament runs right up to the constitutional buffers, the Commons would be dissolved on 17 December 2024, with the general election taking place no later than 28 January 2025.
Would the Conservatives be wise to campaign for last-gasp re-election through Christmas and the traditional January blues?
The general assumption is that the prime minister will have to screw up his courage and ask the King to call the general election during 2024.
The nation faces months of torrid electioneering until then.
A Sunak win would go against the pattern of history
British politics since 2016 have been dominated by turmoil within the Conservative Party.
It is difficult to boast of any significant achievements by UK plc in that time.
Broken Britain and the Cost Of Living Crisis dominate the public conversation.
Opinion polls are consistently against the Conservatives.
In any case, Sir Anthony Seldon, chronicler of prime ministers, points out for Rishi Sunak to win “would be a unique historic achievement – no party since modern electoral politics were born in 1832 has won a fifth general election in a row”.
Yet that is what the prime minister is attempting.
An immediate Kamikaze early election to get it all over now is not on his agenda.
Sunak wants to celebrate his first anniversary as prime minister on 25 October.
He has just tinkered with a cabinet reshuffle and is planning to host an international conference on Artificial Intelligence as well as a King’s Speech on 7 November.
He spelt out his priorities for the new term before the summer recess in a speech to Tory MPs in the 1922 Committee: “When we come back in September we have a choice to make… do we come together and throw everything at winning the next election or not?
“I’ve made my choice, I’m all in with you to win.”
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By-elections will loom over conference season
Coming together will not be easy in the next few months, not least because MPs will not be legislating together very much.
They will be back at Westminster for barely a fortnight before going into recess until 16 October for an unusually prolonged party conference season.
Further recesses are likely before the King’s speech and for the autumn half-term.
A first order of business next week will be moving the writs – setting the dates – for the two pending by-elections in the seats vacated by Nadine Dorries in Mid-Bedfordshire and by the SNP’s Margaret Ferrier in Rutherglen & West Hamilton.
The results are bound to overshadow the conference season.
The Liberal Democrats meet in Bournemouth in the last week of September, followed in the first half of October by the Conservatives in Manchester, then Labour in Liverpool, and finally the SNP in Aberdeen.
No party can relax about these by-elections.
Expectations are highest for Labour.
Sir Keir Starmer‘s chances of leading a majority government will be boosted if Labour shows it can take back seats from the Scottish nationalists.
Capturing Mid Beds would be a record-breaking result, and act as smashing confirmation of Labour’s standing in the polls and its recent by-election victory in Selby & Ainsty.
A split in votes between Labour, Liberal Democrat and independent candidates, could allow the Conservatives to hold on.
This would be a boost for Sunak whatever the underlying realities of the electoral arithmetic.
Tony Blair’s path to Labour’s victory in 1997 was famously likened to “a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor”.
Starmer is currently attempting a similar feat.
Sunak’s hope is that some scandal, party row, or misjudgement makes his opponent drop the vase.
But Starmer is stolid and cautious and Labour looks as united as the feuding Tories look disunited.
Tories are at loggerheads but will throw everything at it
Sunak hopes to use the legislative agenda to “throw everything” at winning the general election.
That means looking for wedge issues – which could cast the opposition in a bad light.
Unfortunately for him, as was shown in the aftermath of the surprise hanging on of Johnson’s former seat in Uxbridge & South Ruislip, the Conservatives are at loggerheads over what those policies should be.
In the clear-up session this month Tories are tussling in both the Lords and Commons over the Online Harms Bill, the Energy Bill and the proposed changes on housing and river pollution added to the Levelling-Up Bill by Michael Gove.
Conservative factions are also lining up to take each other on at the Conference – #CPC23 to its organisers.
Centrist “One Nation” Tories are rallying in advance while the Conservative Democratic Organisation is holding a black-tie dinner on the opening night in Manchester graced by right-wing luminaries including Priti Patel, Lord Frost and David Campbell Bannerman.
Nadine Dorries and Theresa May will be there too for the launch of their books, attacking the direction of the party from different sides.
Liz Truss, last year’s prime minister, is expected.
Johnson’s attendance plans are not known.
Sunak will try to dispel divisions in his party with what he puts into his first King’s speech.
The programme for government is likely to be aspirational for the next government rather than offering immediate remedies for the state of the nation, along the lines of the government’s small boats, NHS and crime weeks during the summer break.
The reshuffle appointment of Sunak-loyalist Claire Coutinho as Energy Security Secretary will confirm fears of Conservatives such as Zac Goldsmith that the prime minister will deploy green policy scepticism as a wedge against Labour.
First-term MP Coutinho has no track record on the environment.
PM’s priorities offer a clue to election timing
The prime minister’s five pledges remain his priorities.
The most likely to succeed is halving inflation, or coming close to it.
Little more than warm words are expected in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement.
By the Budget in March, some Tories think there may be a “soft spot” of economic optimism, allowing Hunt to tee up a spring election.
Most of those calling for this early vote belong to a “things can only get worse” tendency who fear a recession and still more mortgage pain later in 2024.
As they approach the end of their term, incumbent prime ministers often use local elections as a weathervane before calling a general election.
As things stand, Sunak has little to look forward to in next year’s set of elections in predominantly Labour-leaning metropolitan boroughs, featuring 10 high-profile mayoral contests, including in London and Greater Manchester.
A general election at the same time, on 2 May 2024, could soften the blow.
Read more from Adam Boulton
Carefully curated TV debates are needed on both sides of the Atlantic
75 MPs to step down as election looms. Who’s going to replace them?
How Sunak’s California holiday compares with past PMs
Alternatively, if Sunak hesitates and the Conservatives do well against expectations, a June general election could follow.
Sunak’s deputy chief of staff has told his team to enjoy next month’s party conference because it could be the last before the election.
Conventional wisdom at Westminster is that this time next year the general election campaign will be under way – with a vote in October wiping out next year’s costly conference season.
In the most recently reported figures, Labour raised more money from donors than the Conservatives.
There has not been an autumn general election in the UK for 50 years.
Sometimes conventional wisdom can be wrong about the dates and the outcomes of elections.
For example, it cannot take account of external factors.
By next September it should be clearer which way the Ukraine war is heading and whether the United States is poised to re-elect Donald Trump.
We can be certain, however, that British politicians and voters are already caught up in a bitterly contentious long campaign to election day and beyond.
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