Sunak resists call to set poll date amid leadership threat


A general election must be held by the end of January and Sunak has said his “working assumption” is it will be in the second half of 2024 …reports Asian Lite News

Rishi Sunak is resisting advice from allies to set the date for the UK general election, which they say would help him to head off a threatened leadership challenge by Conservative Party rebels next month.

Tory ministers and advisers fear the prime minister will face a concerted effort to oust him if the Conservatives, who trail the Labour Party by about 20 points in opinion polls, suffer a bad result in local and mayoral elections on May 2. The best way to safeguard his position, some argue privately, is to get ahead of the expected fallout by setting the date for the national vote beforehand.

The theory, first put forward publicly by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, is that naming the date would put British politics firmly in campaign mode and reinforce the idea in Tory minds that changing leader again — Sunak is the third premier since the country last went to the polls in 2019 — would stoke more chaos and likely alienate voters even further.

Setting out a timeline would “forestall any leadership contest” and put Sunak “back in charge of events,” Osborne, who has retained close links to the administration, said on his Political Currency podcast last month.

However, Sunak’s closest advisers are so far reluctant to take the advice. He will not announce the date earlier than necessary because the element of surprise is a key advantage over the opposition, one ally said.

A general election must be held by the end of January and Sunak has said his “working assumption” is it will be in the second half of 2024. His advisers have been working around October, November or December as the likeliest options. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt has suggested it could be in October, reported Bloomberg.

December 12, which would be exactly five years on from the previous Tory election win, has long been floated, people familiar with the matter said. That would give the economy more time to recover and for the Bank of England to cut interest rates. A clash with the US presidential election in election would be avoided, along with any unpredictable spillover on the UK campaigns.

It would also get Sunak past the two-year mark in office, unlike a mid-October vote that would see him fall short of that milestone. Sunak’s preference has always been to go long, people familiar with his thinking said.

The fatalism settling over Downing Street and the expectation the Tories have only months left in office was illustrated by Sunak’s need to issue vigorous denials he had been discussing possible post-election roles with Blackstone Inc.’s Steve Schwarzman. Two senior Tories told Bloomberg the two men were considering working together on a possible artificial intelligence project.

Sunak’s spokesman, Dave Pares, told reporters Monday the suggestion Sunak was in talks to run an AI fund was “not true.” Blackstone’s London office called claims that Schwarzman had discussed roles with Sunak “categorically false,” adding that none of the firm’s leaders have had “this kind of discussion” with government officials.

Nonetheless the pair are on good terms. Schwarzman joined Sunak on a panel at the UK’s Global Investment Summit in November, where he touted the importance of businesses quickly adopting AI. Sunak also attended the ground-breaking ceremony of Blackstone’s new building in Mayfair in February.

The prevailing view in Westminster is that many Tories are gearing up for a career change after the election, which most expect to be later in the year.

Yet speculation about a snap vote as soon as June or July is also persistent. Officials close to Sunak no longer shoot down a possibility they were privately ruling out just a few weeks ago.

One reason is some aides think that if Sunak’s position is in peril and it looks as though he can’t survive until the autumn, his best chance of leading the party into the election would be to call a snap vote in June or July.

That would likely include a pivot to a tougher line on immigration and even promising to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, to right-wing Tory rebels and to try to stem the movement of former Conservative voters to the populist Reform UK party set up by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage.

But there are potential flaws. One is that calling an early election in those circumstances, after a bad showing on May 2, would broadcast to voters that Sunak was forced into it. Tory ministers and officials said Keir Starmer’s Labour would capitalize and put Sunak’s weakness front and center of their campaign.

It’s also likely that if Sunak waits until he’s facing an imminent challenge before calling a summer election, his party would step in to prevent him from doing so. Regardless of their view of Sunak, few Conservative members of Parliament want a snap election at a time when the latest YouGov poll on Friday put Labour 26 points ahead and on course for a landslide win.

Those numbers help the Tory rebels’ call for leadership change. With 53 letters of no confidence required to force a vote on Sunak’s leadership, Tory rebels claim 25 have been submitted and 10 more are ready for after May 2.

All of which appears to bolster the argument of Osborne and others that Sunak should set a date and challenge the rebels to rally behind his campaign.

But Sunak’s team takes the contrary view, that the rebels’ chances of removing the premier are slim and there is little need to show their hand on election timing. Even with a bad set of local election results on May 2, the fundamental issue remains unchanged: Too many Tory MPs regard changing leader so close to an election as counter-productive.

Rather than talk about the election, Downing Street is sticking to its guns. Sunak’s team are preparing a series of events meant to highlight the UK’s improving economic outlook next week.

He’s still likely to be asked about the vote at every single one.

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