When Theresa May called a snap election in 2017, not everything panned out exactly as she had planned. Image: Malcolm Park / Alamy

Snap elections can expose a party’s problems

Past prime ministers have used surprise votes to their advantage. But history tells us they just as often go horribly wrong
June 5, 2024

The phrase “snap election” suggests a bold strategic play, as a prime minister stakes everything on their knack for reading the nation. Yet when Rishi Sunak stepped out of Number 10 to spring his announcement, he didn’t look like a psephological Napoleon. More a tetchy, middle-management King Lear, raging in the rain at an ungrateful country. The main thing that appeared to have snapped was his patience. 

This is the first election that a prime minister has called early, without having to ask for parliament’s blessing, in almost two decades. In 2019, Boris Johnson’s repeated attempts at doing so foundered on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act from 2011, and a “snap” election was only called with the approval of other parties. Both instances of this gambit are unusual. Normally, the decision is a lonely but plausible gamble. Past premiers have used it to try to fatten a thin majority, to win backing for a new policy turn, or—if they have taken over mid-parliament—to win a “personal” mandate. 

In theory, Sunak could have called a much snappier snap election in late 2022, as soon as he became prime minister. But as he took office only because of the Truss disaster, this was not a viable option. And even if Conservative support had not been tanking, the party was haunted by the memory of 2017. Like Sunak, Theresa May had become prime minister unopposed. Around 19 per cent ahead in the polls, she surprised the nation with a snap election—subject, under the 2011 act, to Labour accepting. Which it did. May’s poll lead promptly evaporated and, with it, her majority.

In the right circumstances, asking the electorate for a fresh personal mandate can work

This astonishing blunder reveals a lesson about snap elections: success depends not just on timing but on what the move lays bare about your party. The bravado of May’s decision to go early was undermined by indecision over the objective. One of her influential chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy, saw the election as a way to win a mandate for a radically different programme, and drafted the manifesto accordingly. But Lynton Crosby, the party’s lead strategist, insisted on promising continuity. In which case, why hold the election? The party has never really closed the divide that May’s decision exposed: one reason for its predicament today.

In the right circumstances, asking the electorate for a fresh personal mandate can work. In 1955, Winston Churchill finally stepped down, and after years of waiting, Anthony Eden took over. He immediately staked his inheritance on a snap election—and won, more than trebling the Conservatives’ majority to 60. When Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007, he seemed poised to follow Eden’s example, before backing off. His position never recovered, but not because he didn’t win his own mandate, which is not a constitutional requirement. The problem was the same as May’s: his operation looked indecisive.

The other common justification for a snap election is to bolster a weak majority. Again, the success of this depends in part on what it reveals. In 1950, Clement Attlee had seen Labour’s historic 1945 majority cut to almost nothing. Eighteen months later, he led his weary ministers back before the public, and fell from power altogether. But, in 1964, a dynamic Harold Wilson won power with a majority of three—and ran again after 18 months in Downing Street and bagged a landslide. 

Yet the happy-go-lucky 1950s and 1960s have less to tell us about today than the dilemmas posed by the crises of the 1970s. In the wake of the 1973 oil shock, faced with a second miners’ strike inside two years, Edward Heath came under enormous pressure from his party to call a snap election for 7th February, to secure a mandate to confront the strikers. Heath hesitated, finally calling the election for a few weeks later than advised—and, very narrowly, lost. More than any other, that February 1974 election was a snapshot of a politics stuck between invidious options. For a time, Labour seemed to have replaced picket line confrontation with its “social contract” with the unions. By autumn 1978, this last-ditch fix was collapsing, too, with the first stirrings of the Winter of Discontent. 

And that gathering crisis produced the moment which Sunak’s snap election calls most strongly to mind. That September, prime minister James Callaghan went to address the Trades Union Congress, and was widely expected to call an early election—but didn’t. After months of strikes, his government finally fell to a vote of no confidence. Now many Conservatives are just as unhappy with Sunak’s decision to run as Labour people were in 1978 with Callaghan’s decision not to. 

But as Callaghan himself remarked as defeat approached: “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants…” Today, Sunak is discovering that it does not matter how clever he is, how hard he works or what decisions he takes—including the date of the election. No wonder he looked so miserable, out there on his own in the storm.