Sunak's joke, Starmer's time: Will 2024 seal the deal for Labour?

Opposition is far ahead in the polls but will not win in 2024 by acclaim

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak subtly hints at election timing amid a backdrop of eager journalists, capturing a moment of political suspense at the heart of British governance. PA
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He liked his little joke, did Rishi Sunak. Knowing they were desperate for the date of the next general election the Prime Minister told the assembled journalists at a press conference that it would be, wait for it … in 2024.

Of course, he never would tell them the exact day, just like that. Still, he enjoyed seeing their crestfallen faces.

While the media was disappointed, it was news, nevertheless. We now know the UK general election will not be in January 2025, the final date by which Mr Sunak is required to go to the country.

Appealing to him as it is, to remain in power for absolutely as long as possible, January would entail campaigning over Christmas and New Year, at a period when the British weather is usually grim and daylight hours short.

Some time next year, it is then. The favourite slot is the autumn, after the annual party conference. The theory is that Mr Sunak will send the activists on their way with a rousing speech, one which will reference lasting reforms to gambling, smoking, education. Migration will be in check, the economy will be growing, taxes lower, British pride will be restored.

It is his intention that this expounding of “Sunakism” will act as a springboard to victory. Or, at least if he loses, it will form his legacy.

Securing Sunakism is far from guaranteed. So far, on virtually all fronts, Mr Sunak has not made much headway.

In order for his policies to have a chance and to take hold, therefore, he requires time – hence holding a national ballot towards the end of the year.

There is another argument, that says Mr Sunak could go to the country earlier. By waiting, more people will be caught paying higher mortgages. Interest rates will still be raised as next year inflation proves stubborn to dislodge. As mortgage-holders come off fixed-rate loans, they will be hit with increased borrowing payments. Hundreds of thousands will be snared, many of them homeowning natural Tory supporters.

Mr Sunak, so this claim goes, should alight on an early date, in April or May. But in May, there are the local elections that could prove embarrassing for the Tories. One suggestion, canvassed at Westminster, is that the general and local polls are held on the same day.

In any event, whichever day Mr Sunak opts for, will not make much difference: The result is likely to be the same. If the opinion polls are correct, Keir Starmer will become UK Prime Minister in 2024.

It has been quite an ascent for Mr Starmer; he has had to work hard at winning popular approval. Even now, substantially ahead in the ratings, he does not attract widespread acclaim – not like Tony Blair did, in 1997.

Back then, the nation was ready and willing for change. The charismatic, youthful Mr Blair was its chosen vehicle. The country wants a similar shift again, but the public have not warmed to Mr Starmer, same as they did to Mr Blair.

Latterly, though, the very traits that held Mr Starmer back – caution, solidity, boring in other words – have switched to positive. They are now seen as the very virtues desired in the next UK leader.

Years of Tory turmoil have led to a widespread craving for dependability. Step forward, reassuringly low-key Mr Starmer.

Not that the Labour leader is going to find it plain-sailing. His room for manoeuvre will be tight. There is simply not enough money available for him to pursue the sort of corrective policies he would like to.

He inherits an economy that is flat – unless Mr Sunak really does make some progress on the growth front, but it is hard to see that occurring, not while there is still war in Ukraine and heightened tension and volatility in the Middle East. That said, Britain is in better shape than some of its European neighbours. Its economy emerged quicker from the pandemic and proved surprisingly resilient to the outbreak.

One consequence is that talk of rejoining the EU is not as vocal as it was. It is an ever-present, but the economic woes of Germany in particular have provided pause for thought.

A new administration, not tainted by being from the party that steered Brexit, will be able to establish closer relations with the EU. It is also in the bloc’s interest to have a trusted, working, relationship with the UK – the Union is realising it is also missing the UK as much as the UK misses them.

Uncertainty internationally is set to continue. If anything it will worsen as the US holds its own election. At present, the prospect of an ageing Joe Biden or a vengeful, possibly even jailed, Donald Trump emerging victorious is almost too unpalatable to contemplate.

With Mr Biden the question will be about his grip and with that America’s authority on the world stage; with Mr Trump, it is more to do with what is in his head and the policies he plans to enact. Where, for instance, will he take the US on climate change? On relations with China?

There seems to be no alternative than a run-off between these two. Next year may well go down in history as marking the nadir of US politics.

On that note, all that remains is to say Happy New Year. But, to quote the lyrics of the song chosen by Mr Blair and his team as their rallying cry in 1997: “Things can only get better”. Here’s hoping.

Published: December 26, 2023, 8:00 AM