OPINION - Rishi Sunak has been in last-ditch campaign mode for so long — a General Election is logical

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced a general election for July 4 (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced a general election for July 4 (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak’s very first move as Prime Minister was to baffle. Why had this sensible technocrat appointed a loon like Suella Braverman? Many baffling moments followed — Rwanda, the war on woke, tax cuts that ran in the face of everything he had stood for as chancellor. So a snap decision to call a summer election — hauling Lord Cameron back from Albania, catching most of his party on the hop, getting caught in the rain — fits the pattern. It has baffled us all.

Why call an election now? It seems an odd moment. Polls show the Tories some 20 points behind Labour and a terrible recent performance in local elections lends credibility to the findings. After all, something might turn up. It’s unlikely, but isn’t it worth waiting for, just in case?

But Sunak’s decision points in one direction only. Not only does he believe nothing will turn up, he believes things will get worse.

He might not be wrong. First, things could get worse in the shape of Reform UK — a bogeyman of uncertain size and shape that nevertheless haunts the Conservative Party. At present, Reform is not ready for an election and their reaction told the tale. Labour’s campaign video was ready to go; Reform’s effort was amateurish, featuring an echoey and unscripted Richard Tice in front of some unlaundered curtains.

The party has yet to find and vet candidates to fill every seat — and as fringe parties tend to attract oddballs, vetting will be important. Nigel Farage, who represents the party’s best chance to capture voters’ imaginations, was still wavering on whether to fight a local campaign when the election was called and announced yesterday that he would not stand. Sunak’s decision catches them unprepared.

What about the economy? A late election would allow time for the economy to grow and for further tax cuts. His chosen date suggests that Sunak believes that the news in the autumn will be bad rather than good. Better to call the contest now, when voters can still hope things will improve.

Sunak’s flagship Rwanda policy, too, is untested. Waiting until the first plane takes off would allow him to claim victory. But it would also give us time to discover whether it actually works in stopping the boats. The decision not to wait and see suggests he thinks it won’t.

Whatever the decision means for the Conservatives, it is good news for the rest of us. It is high time this period of politics ended

But let’s look at the big picture too. Whatever the decision means for the Conservatives, it is good news for the rest of us. It is high time this period of politics ended.

The near-certain knowledge a governing party is to be wiped out does not make for good governance. First, sleaze and ill-discipline explode, because party whips no longer have power to bring everyone into line. Usually errant MPs can be bribed or threatened with their future prospects, but if there are no future prospects, there is no leverage, and backbenchers can do as they please.

Then, too, people just leave. There has been an exodus of MPs who have announced they are stepping down or have crossed the floor, which harms morale. A leadership contest on the near horizon does little to promote harmony. MPs and even ministers are incentivised to build their own platforms — freelancing, opposing Sunak’s decisions and jostling with him for media exposure.

The Prime Minister’s decisions have been warped too. There is the impression he has been in last-ditch campaign mode for much of his term in office. Short-term signalling has trumped long-term decision making. Why think of the future when yours can be measured in months?

The salience of the plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda — primarily a signal to the Right that he is tough on asylum seekers — has trumped the country’s real priorities: the cost-of-living crisis, the NHS, housing. The fear that he will be seen as soft on crime, for example, has meant sensible plans for cutting short sentences have been left to languish. The result? Prisons are now so full that police have been asked not to arrest so many criminals.

There is the temptation, as your term ends, to make outlandish spending and tax cut promises. You will probably not have to deal with the consequences, but your rivals will. As polls continue to track downwards, there also is the risk that you panic. Sunak has repeatedly U-turned and changed his mind.

This final move, too, calling an end to it all, might have been made in panic. No matter. We should be grateful for it. Damage limitation is sometimes the best that one can hope for.

Martha Gill is an Evening Standard columnist