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Rishi Sunak eyes autumn general election as he scotches talk of a May poll

Rishi Sunak all but ruled out a May general election on Thursday as he indicated the country will likely go to the polls in the autumn.

The Prime Minister made clear he would not be calling a spring poll.

On a visit to the East Midlands, he signalled that the election would be in the second half of the year.

Mr Sunak said that his "working assumption" is that he will hold a "general election in the second half of this year".

The Tories are currently trailing by Labour by 15 to 20 points in the polls.

Mr Sunak dangled the prospect of future tax cuts to voters and attacked Sir Keir Starmer's green proposals as the two leaders set out their stalls at the start of the election year.

Labour has claimed that a spring vote is the "worst kept secret in Parliament" in a possible ploy to claim Mr Sunak has bottled it if he goes longer.

The Liberal Democrats have also been calling for Mr Sunak to hold the vote in May rather than trying to "cling on" to power for the rest of the year.

But Mr Sunak told broadcasters on a visit to a youth centre in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire: "So my working assumption is we'll have a General Election in the second half of this year and in the meantime I've got lots that I want to get on with."

The Conservative leader declined to rule out a May election categorically but repeated his intentions to go for later in the year.

"I want to keep going, managing the economy well and cutting people's taxes.

"But I also want to keep tackling illegal migration," Mr Sunak said.

"So I've got lots to get on with and I'm determined to keep delivering for the British people."

But Pat McFadden, Labour’s National Campaign Coordinator, said: “All we have learned today is that our unelected Prime Minister has yet again bottled holding the election.

"He needs to stop hiding, stop being so weak, stop squatting in Number 10 without a mandate and simply come clean with the public: when will the British people get their say on 14 years of Tory failure?”

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey echoed the Labour claim, saying: “Rishi Sunak has bottled it and is running scared of a May General Election.

“Squatter Sunak is holed up in Downing Street, desperately clinging on to power rather than facing the verdict of the British people."

Jeremy Hunt sparked speculation that the election could be in May after it was announced that the Budget will be on March 6.

The Chancellor is expected to announce tax cuts in a give-away Budget, with income tax and inheritance tax possibly being targeted.

But the tax cuts will take months to feed through into people's pay packets to any significant extent.

The economy is expected to be central to the election campaign.

Holding the election in the autumn will allow more time for the cost-of-living crisis to ease.

The Prime Minister met his pledge to halve inflation last year, hitting 3.9 per cent in November.

However, millions of households are still seeing their budgets squeezed by rises in mortgage bills and the annual cost of gas and electricity still at around £1,900.

The Prime Minister and Sir Keir Starmer both hit the road to go out on regional visits as the political parties started gearing up their election machines for what is expected to effectively be a gruelling ten-month campaign.

In a speech in Bristol, Sir Keir sought to portray Labour as the party of “hope” as he pledged to take on the Tories in a General Election fought over the economy.

He emphasised that Labour was ready for the “responsibility of serious government” and that it would seek to “bring the country together” in a “spirit of national unity” after 14 years of Conservative rule.

In echoes of Tony Blair’s “things can only get better,” he appealed to voters to “hold onto the flickering hope in your heart that things can be better” and promised a “politics that treads a little lighter” after the divisions over Brexit and culture wars.

He added: “To truly defeat this miserabilist Tory project, we must crush their politics of divide and decline with a new Project Hope.”

Mr Sunak was giving a rival New Year stump speech, arguing that voters should not risk a Labour government.

Ahead of the event, a Government source said: “The PM will be out talking directly to people about his five priorities and the progress the Government has made on driving down inflation, cutting waiting lists and stopping the boats. He will be saying we’ve made great progress, don’t risk throwing that away with the Labour Party.”

The Tories also accused Sir Keir of being prone to reversing previously-made decisions.

Conservative chairman Richard Holden said: “Nothing is more cynical and populist than a weathervane Labour leader who has a consistent track record of telling people whatever he thinks they want to hear on any given day.”

Sir Keir signalled Labour would scale back its flagship £28 billion green economic revolution plan if it would break borrowing limits.

His party is planning, if it wins powers, to borrow £28 billion a year to invest in green jobs and industry to shift the economy away from fossil fuels in the fight against global warming.

But the Conservatives are trying to make Labour's huge green plan a key election battleground issue, arguing it would risk creating economic chaos as the borrowing would be unaffordable.