The British political system is peculiar.
It’s not just that we don’t have a written constitution. Nor is it the idea that “the Crown” is sovereign. No one – not even constitutional experts – can agree on precisely what that means. We respect our monarchs, but in constitutional terms “the Crown” can mean the King or Queen, or the government, or the state, or merely a lovely piece of jewellery worn on state occasions.
Nor is it even clear when the next general election will be. Prime ministers decide the date, and of course, choose it when they think they may win. It’s unfair, but traditional, and the clock is ticking for Rishi Sunak. When might the opinion polls improve? Soon? Later? Never?
Americans, of course, have certainty. They know that they elect a president every four years on a Tuesday in November. This time, it’s November 5, next year. Every French voter knows that their next presidential election will be in 2027, and that under their written constitution Emmanuel Macron, after two terms, cannot run again.
In the UK, the only rule is that a prime minister must call an election five years after the last one. Simple arithmetic says Mr Sunak runs out of time at the end of next year, although no one much likes a winter election – bad weather, long periods of darkness, and most voters prefer to think about Christmas not politics.
Some think Mr Sunak will choose the autumn, October next year. Others, including Labour party insiders I have been speaking with, are preparing for much earlier, a general election next May.
Even Mr Sunak probably hasn’t made up his mind, but there are good reasons for a spring election.
First, changes to the tax system start early next year. Some voters may be grateful for some minor tax cuts, even though other economic problems suggest that this may not be enough to turn the polls around.
Second, the Conservative party is already engaged in hugely damaging faction fighting. Call an election soon and this will cease (at least in public). There will be a kind of civil war truce if Conservative MPs recognise that they need to stop bickering like school children. They will pretend to be united because they all know that voters loathe it when MPs of the same party fight among themselves.
But the most compelling reason Mr Sunak will go to the polls in May was put to me by one prominent Labour MP, who pointed out that May is the month of significant local elections across much of the UK.
More or less every political commentator, including privately many Conservatives, expects the Conservative party to do badly in those local elections. Looking like losers in May would demoralise an already divided party even further, making an October general election potentially a lost contest as the Conservatives stagger through the summer as a kind of zombie government, demoralised and divided.
No one can know for sure, of course. Moreover, Labour activists remain extremely nervous that they could somehow blow away their enormous lead in opinion polls through carelessness. Yet in the past two months, I’ve been on a book tour, talking with audiences all over the UK about what can be done to fix the many problems of Britain. I’ve been to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and across England. The mood is clear. Everywhere I have been, voters want change.
Mr Sunak himself recognised this when he tried to present himself as the “change” candidate, overturning 30 years of mostly Conservative governments. But in the current stretch of Conservatives in power since 2010, the idea that another five years will bring about “change” is hard, probably impossible, to sell.
Mr Sunak cannot even boast about the usual Conservative ideas of bringing “competence” or even coherence in government, at least in the comments I’ve heard from book festival audiences. They tend to be older, wealthier, and well-informed people, engaged in the idea of making the UK a better place.
Everywhere from Edinburgh and Belfast to the English heartlands, I have heard a real sense of discontent and disappointment that in our usually competent country, nothing much in public life – from politics to transport and utilities – seems to work, or costs too much, or both. Audience members complain about poor train services and lack of buses, the cost-of-living crisis, economic problems, social divisions, sewage on beaches and rivers, and a sense of aimless bickering from political leaders.
None of this, of course, guarantees a Labour victory next year. And it may instead guarantee a degree of apathy.
About a third of the British voting-age population typically do not vote. I have had numerous conversations with those who say all politicians are “all the same”. They’re not. And my response to voter apathy is that voting is a real privilege, as well as a civic duty. Moreover, if you do not vote then for five years you have no right to complain.
Complaining, however, like not knowing when the next election will be, is also a British tradition. Unfortunately.