Ignore the rumours—we’re heading for a late autumn general election

Prime ministers heading for defeat don’t tend to call general elections sooner than they have to 

January 03, 2024
Image: David Bagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: David Bagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

2024 is almost certainly election year. And despite all the chatter about a May election, it will probably be in October or November, closer to the legal deadline of January 2025. 

You don’t need a crystal ball to see why. Prime ministers who appear to be heading to defeat don’t call general elections sooner than they need to. But to leave it to the very last minute—December 2024 or January 2025—would mean a Christmas campaign, which would obviously be very unpopular, as much among politicians as the public. And there could be no plea of necessity, as with the Brexit election of December 2019. 

The precedents are clear on both fronts. Brown in 2010, Major in 1992 and 1997 and Douglas-Home in 1964 all appeared to be headed to defeat—and all left the election until virtually the last possible moment allowed by law. Callaghan would have done so in 1979 had he not been defeated in a no confidence vote in parliament in late March (the parliament could have run until November). 

As for December or January, there has only been the one (2019) December election in the last century, and no January election since 1910, and that was the result of a constitutional crisis (like the 2019 election). All of which points to an election in November at the latest. 

Why is there so much noise about a May poll? Rishi Sunak obviously doesn’t want to rule it out too soon—miracles will never cease—while Labour’s strategists are anxious to rule it in, to keep up the campaigning tempo and to give them a “he’s bottled it” cry if it doesn’t happen.  

A 2nd May poll would coincide with this year’s local elections and police and crime commissioner elections. So if a general election is to be held before the summer, it will probably be on 2nd May, since Sunak is unlikely to want a general election within a month or two of a likely local elections evisceration. 

There is, however, one complicating factor. Sunak is so weak that he may not survive as Tory leader until the general election. But this probably points to a later rather than earlier election, since a new Tory prime minister taking office this spring or summer is highly unlikely to call an immediate poll. 

The best argument I have heard for an early poll is that Sunak is now so unenamoured of the job that an early release from Number 10 would be a positive blessing for him. But even in that event, it is more likely that he would simply give up the leadership—maybe after losing, or coming close to losing, a no confidence vote among Tory MPs—than that he would put himself through the horrors of an early election campaign while 20 or so points behind Labour in the polls‚ just to escape from Number 10 a few months early. 

It should be added that no prime minister—or major party leader—has been dislodged this close to an election in modern British history. But then, few prime ministers have been so obviously unpopular as Rishi Sunak on the eve of an election. Gordon Brown was closing the gap with David Cameron by the start of 2010. The exception is John Major in 1997. It is hard to think that Michael Heseltine would not have done better than Major against Tony Blair in 1997, but Hezza made no move against Major, maybe because he knew that he was highly unpopular among Major’s right-wing Tory critics as the slayer of Margaret Thatcher seven years earlier. 

So it looks like an election campaign lasting most of 2024. Happy new year!