A snap election in the UK? Such a rumour would suit Sunak

It's the best way for the Prime Minister to fend off his rivals within the Conservative party – at least for now

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to the DHL Gateway port facility east of London on Monday. AFP
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UK Parliament is awash with rumours about a sudden election. Election timing is in the gift of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and the rumour mongers say that it could come in weeks.

That’s because the governing Conservative party expects terrible results in local government elections across England and Wales on Thursday. Mr Sunak as party leader will be blamed. Even if the idea of an immediate election is wrong – and Mr Sunak himself possibly has not made up his mind – many Conservative MPs are already choosing to jump before they are pushed out by voters.

One MP, Dan Poulter, has quit to join the opposition Labour party, saying that the Conservatives nowadays are a “nationalist party of the right”.

Another MP, Mark Menzies, is embroiled in a sex scandal, details of which are best avoided. What we can say is that Mr Menzies allegedly called an elderly party member at 3am demanding £5,000 (almost $6,300) as a matter of “life and death” because he claimed he needed to pay some “bad people”.

Yet another Conservative MP, William Wragg, was publicly disgraced after admitting that he sent a compromising picture of himself to a stranger on a dating site. This bizarre conduct came from a 36-year-old legislator who calls himself a “Commonsense Conservative”. The unidentified stranger then demanded that Mr Wragg hand over contact details of other MPs. Astonishingly, the “Commonsense Conservative” did as he was instructed.

Beyond these two most recent scandals, a total of nearly 20 Conservative MPs have had the party whip withdrawn. They can sit in Parliament as “independents”, or in Mr Poulter’s case, as a Labour MP, until the general election, and then seek job opportunities perhaps more in tune with their talents.

History suggests that those who wield the knife seldom end up wearing the crown

Beyond scandals and defections, the list of current Tory MPs quitting politics now stretches to more than 60. The mood in the party is funereal. It adds up to about one in six sitting Conservative MPs who no longer wish to, or feel able to, face the voters again.

Politically, the Sunak government appears like The Walking Dead, struggling to find any compelling issue to turn things around. And so why, therefore, amid all this turmoil, might Mr Sunak call, or threaten to call, a general election?

Some believe he understands that things will only get worse if he drags out his time in Downing Street. A more likely possibility is that Mr Sunak knows that rumours of an imminent general election will scare fellow MPs into falling into line and cease their plotting against him.

Yet another party leader being forced out – the UK has had five Tory prime ministers since 2016 – might seem crazy, but that is an adequate description of post-Brexit politics. At least three leading MPs – Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch and Priti Patel – are thought to be positioning themselves for a leadership challenge at some point.

This idea may be energised if Thursday’s local government election results are as bad as predicted.

Those three possible contenders deny plotting. Ambitious politicians always do. But my guess – and it is only a guess – is that Mr Sunak is happy for rumours of a snap election to circulate because fear of a humiliating sudden defeat at the hands of voters will scare his party rebels into silence.

And plotters need to take care. History suggests that those who wield the knife seldom end up wearing the crown.

Mr Sunak’s plan, however, is clearly subject to change by events. For now, it appears he wishes to hang on, as he insists, calling an election only in the second half of 2024. November is mentioned as a possible date. But delay brings with it other problems. A November general election campaign would then coincide with the predictable turmoil of the presidential contest in the US.

The idea of two of the biggest members in Nato simultaneously enduring turbulent elections and potential changes of leadership while conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine are unresolved does not seem wise. Perhaps Mr Sunak should quell the speculation by learning from a previous prime minister, Labour’s Harold Wilson, in the 1970s.

Faced with plotters in his own party, Mr Wilson offered a joke, while making a very serious point: “Let me say, I know what is going on ... I am going on. Your government is going on.” But Mr Wilson had a mandate from voters. As party leader, he led Labour to general election victories.

Mr Sunak has never won a general election as party leader. He’s an accidental Prime Minister, not in Downing Street because he is popular across the UK, but because the 2016 Brexit vote divided the country and also divided his party. The moderates – those who used to be called “One Nation Conservatives”, such as David Cameron – lost. The more radical right-wing free marketeers, ideologues and odd-balls such as Boris Johnson rose to the top.

Conservatives used to claim that their secret weapon was party loyalty. Their real secret weapon is actually ruthlessness. We may see that in action very soon.

Published: April 30, 2024, 2:00 PM