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Why Rishi Sunak is gambling on an early U.K. general election

The Tory party could have let the election clock run for another few months.

- May 27, 2024
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for a snap election on July 4, 2024.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (cc) U.K. government.

On May 22, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced July 4, 2024, as the next U.K. general election date. The news surprised many, given Sunak’s political position (bad), the weather forecast (rainy), and the time left before he had to schedule the election (months). 

Why would a party that is 20 points behind in the polls risk losing power months before it needs to? Why call an election in the middle of a season that includes Wimbledon, a major European soccer tournament, and the June 6-9 European Parliament elections? And the U.K. leadership has two important meetings to prepare for: the G7 summit (June 13-15), and the July 9-11 NATO summit.

Spoiler alert: Sunak’s move likely means he thinks things won’t get much better – so why not vote now?

Election timing is strategic

In many parliamentary systems the prime minister can decide when to hold elections. For instance, U.K. election guidelines mandate general elections every five years. The exact timing is flexible, as the prime minister can at any time visit the King and ask him to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections – that’s what Sunak did last week. This practice is in stark contrast to the fixed four-year cycle for U.S. presidential elections.

Arguably, this right to go to the people early gives the party in power a decided advantage in securing a renewed mandate and resetting the five-year election clock. The prime minister can call an election when the time is “right” rather than on a fixed calendar date – the prime minister, and the party in power, get to decide what “right” means. If the economy is booming or the prime minister is riding a wave of popularity, why not cash in and secure another term? 

In practice, however, profiting from an opportunistic election is often harder than it seems.

Early elections can have advantages…

In some cases, the prime minister calls an election within a few years of the previous election because their party’s electoral majority is so small that it makes governing impractical. Opposition parties in Parliament can also force early elections when the ruling party can no longer maintain a parliamentary majority. In 1979, for example, opposition leader Margaret Thatcher called for a vote of no confidence, and the result forced Prime Minister James Callaghan to call for an early election. 

Yet the overriding factor in deciding when to call an election is the prospects of winning. 

When there is an expectation of competitiveness, the incumbent rarely waits until the last moment. When everyone knows the date of the election well in advance, as is always the case in fixed-term electoral systems such as the U.S. system, the opposition organizes, plans, and coordinates to be at its best on election day. 

But going early allows the government to catch the opposition in disarray. Imagine if President Biden could bring the election forward – just as his opponent is stuck in court and unable to campaign! Historically, the earlier a prime minister has called an election, the shorter the time for campaigning between the date of the announcement and actual election date.

…but not when the incumbent party trails in the polls

In the United Kingdom, relatively few parliaments run their full term. When they do, it’s often because the incumbent government has a governable majority but lags far behind the opposition in the opinion polls. That was the story for John Major’s Tory government, which opted to run out the clock before being defeated by Tony Blair’s Labour Party in May 1997

Given the current U.K. political polling, then, many pundits expected Sunak to maximize his remaining time in office. Instead, Sunak gambled and called for an early election. The prime minister had a choice of going to the electorate now or enjoying the remainder of the current term. On December 17, 2024, Parliament would automatically dissolve, triggering a general election 25 days later, on Jan. 28, 2025. 

Why not wait?

For Sunak, the big question is what might happen between now and December. If the economy is likely to grow in the next half year, then Sunak’s prospects will improve by waiting. In contrast, if conditions are likely to further deteriorate, then waiting is a poor gamble. Election timing says much about a leader’s belief about how the economy will fare.

As I explain in my book on election timing, the average British voter has neither the skills nor the information to assess how Britain is likely to perform over the next six months. Yet, Rishi Sunak’s decision to call an election now tells U.K. voters conditions are more likely to deteriorate than to improve. The prime minister has all the information and advisors with the expertise to make informed predictions. 

If those predictions indicated future success, then waiting is the safer bet. Gambling on a July election is only a good bet if the prime minister expects things to be worse in the months ahead. The historical record is clear. With the exception of governments seeking a governable majority, the economic conditions after an early election tend to be worse than conditions after a late election. 

Early elections often signal weakness, not strength

Voters are much more sophisticated than politicians often think. And voters are aware that the prime minister calls for an early election when conditions are likely to deteriorate – and voters are likely to downgrade their assessment of the current government as a result. 

In fact, if we compare the government’s popularity in opinion polls before the announcement of the election with the share of the votes the government receives, there’s a clear pattern. If the government calls for an early election, that government tends to do worse than pre-announcement polls would predict.

Of course, this decline in support does not mean electoral disaster. A government that is 20 points up in the polls can afford to lose 5% of the final vote and still secure an electoral landslide. Yet it does mean that politicians have a difficult time converting a small lead in the opinion polls into electoral success. 

Harold Wilson’s announcement of an early election in 1970 is a cautionary tale. Having trailed the opposition for much of the late 1960s, Wilson’s popularity rebounded in the spring of 1970. Public opinion polls suggested he would win. But when Wilson tried to cash in on this popularity, he lost to Edward Heath’s Conservative Party.

So what should we make of Sunak’s decision? 

The press calls this a “snap” election. But in a historical context, the July 4 election comes fairly late in the current Parliament’s term. That said, the decision to go to the people now rather than wait does not engender expectations of economic growth. Given his poor poll standings, Sunak can do no better than hope for beautiful summer weather and maybe even a triumph for England at the Euro 2024 football championship. That might buoy the British spirit and sense of well-being enough for him to sneak home. 

I join him in hoping that England does well at the Euros. Yet, speaking as a long-suffering England fan, pinning your hopes on England winning is nearly certain to end in disappointment. Sunak’s decision to hold a July election tells us that England’s economy is not likely to fare any better.

Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at New York University. He is the author of Election Timing (Cambridge University Press, 2004).