Sunak may have made the biggest electoral mistake in British history

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

When the history of this election campaign comes to be written, one question will perplex the compilers more than any other: why now? The Tory officials and police officers being investigated for alleged gambling law infractions by betting on a snap contest in July will have secured very good odds for the simple reason that no one was expecting it.

This was hardly surprising since no prime minister has ever voluntarily gone to the country 20 points behind in the opinion polls. With another six months left before an election had to be called, during which anything might have happened, having one now was irrational.

Michael Gove praised Rishi Sunak’s courage – “Who dares wins”, he said before he concluded, like Brave Sir Robin, that discretion is the better part of valour and stood down from Parliament.

We can never know the counterfactual and many will argue that the timing is irrelevant because the Tories were finished whatever Mr Sunak did. Indeed, the party’s prospects might have declined further by the autumn, though it is hard to see how anything could be worse than the position the Conservatives are in now.

But equally, in the fashion of Mr Micawber, something might have turned up. Better economic prospects, with inflation back to 2 per cent and interest rates likely to come down before the end of the year, would have fed a sense that things are not so dire after all, limiting the scale of Labour’s victory. Mr Sunak would have had a few months of positive figures to boast about and people would have felt the improvement, especially if the cost of borrowing had fallen.

Anyone sensible looking at the options for an election would have ruled out the summer because the diary was packed with major events – the D-Day commemorations, a Nato meeting and a G7 summit – as well as sporting distractions like the European football championships and Wimbledon.

And a six-week campaign? Who could possibly have thought that was wise? I suspect most voters turned off weeks ago. Many will already have voted by post. Wednesday’s televised head-to-head debate between Mr Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer threatens to be a non-event. The last one was watched by only 4.8 million viewers. Even Scotland getting turfed out of the Euros by Hungary had 10 million.

Perhaps in his rain-soaked announcement on May 22, Mr Sunak hoped to catch his opponents on the hop; instead, he severely wrong-footed his own party, which was unprepared, had scores of candidates still to select, and was looking forward to a summer where the message of an improving economy could be hammered home.

Moreover, had he waited until the autumn, Nigel Farage might have been out of the way, committed to helping Donald Trump with his presidential campaign. The Reform UK leader’s entry into the election has been one of the biggest drains on Tory support. Another explanation was concern that the courts might again rule the Rwanda deportation scheme to be unlawful. Yet the judiciary trying to thwart the will of Parliament could have been made to work to Mr Sunak’s advantage, not against it.

Maybe the Prime Minister was simply fed up and could not stand the prospect of another six months as a target for pre-election brickbats. At one point, he might have genuinely feared a leadership challenge; but that threat evaporated just after the local elections in May, which was the moment of greatest peril. Yet he did not even tell his Cabinet colleagues before going to see the King to seek a dissolution, which is unusual if not unprecedented, presumably because he feared they would try to stop him.

As election timing blunders go, it is up there with some of the most spectacular of the past 60 years. In 1970, Harold Wilson had endured years of political turmoil, with the devaluation of the pound and internal Labour Party battles over trade union reform and the Common Market.

But despite a majority of 96 secured in 1966, he decided to go to the country a year earlier than necessary. His political adviser Marcia Williams favoured “going to the bitter end” as the polls were not looking good, but after a few weeks with Labour ahead Wilson opted for June 18. He lost.

That election also coincided with a major football tournament and, just a few days before the polls, holders England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the World Cup in Mexico. According to Nick Thomas-Symonds in his recent biography, Wilson “was convinced the negative mood it generated affected the election result”, though the defeat probably owed more to bad trade figures published just a few days before the election.

Another prime minister who called an election when she didn’t have to was Theresa May in 2017. Some 20 points ahead in the polls and with a majority of 17, she wanted a bigger mandate in order to see through her Brexit policy. Instead, she lost her majority and had to cobble together a deal with the DUP in order to continue in office.

Then there are the prime ministers who didn’t go when they should have done. James Callaghan, with no majority, was widely expected to call an election in October 1978 after a pact with the Liberals collapsed.

He ended speculation when addressing the TUC conference. “I have promised nobody that I shall be at the altar in October,” he said, before singing “There was I, waiting at the church …” Unfortunately for Sunny Jim, the interregnum was filled by the Winter of Discontent, wrecking Labour’s chances and bringing Margaret Thatcher to power the following May.

Another prime minister who had cause to regret his procrastination was Gordon Brown. In 2007, he had finally succeeded Tony Blair and all around him were briefing that he would seek his own personal mandate. But he bottled it and never recovered from the impression this gave of indecision. Damian McBride, a No 10 adviser, called it “the greatest misjudgment of Brown’s long career, utterly changing the way he was perceived and defined.” Labour was never ahead in the polls again.

Mr Sunak, then, is the latest in a long line of prime ministers to misjudge their election timing. In his case, however, the consequences for his party may well be terminal.