LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to call a general election at some point in 2024, but exactly when is becoming a source of increasingly fevered speculation among political observers.

The last nationwide vote took place on December 12, 2019. The next election has to happen by January 28, 2025, five years since the current parliament first met after allowing time for campaigning.

The Institute for Government think tank says there are three likely windows for the vote: May 2024, autumn 2024, and January 2025.

Holding it in May, alongside scheduled local elections, would avoid the risk of bad results in those polls damaging the government’s reputation beforehand.

The Conservatives, in power since 2010, have consistently trailed the main opposition Labour Party by double digits in most opinion polls for well over a year now.

That is largely due to the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades and Tory infighting that has resulted in five prime ministers since the 2016 Brexit vote, rather than overwhelming enthusiasm for Labour.

The smart money then is on Labour leader Keir Starmer becoming the next prime minister.

But with potentially more than a year before polling day, a lot could happen to tighten the race.

The Tories might feel that their best chance comes from apathy among voters for both leaders -- which could result in a “hung parliament”, when no party secures a majority.

There has also been speculation that Sunak may be tempted to call an election earlier if right-wing Tory rebels threaten to bring him down over failure to toughen up his plan to send migrants to Rwanda.

An autumn election, likely in October so as not to clash with the US election, would buy Sunak more time to meet his key pledges of growing the economy, slashing National Health Service waiting lists and stopping migrant boats. It would also get Sunak close to two years as prime minister, which sounds a lot better than 18 months and may mean something to him.

Winter elections are rare in the UK and a campaign over Christmas would hardly be popular with voters and candidates, meaning January is probably the least likely of the three scenarios.

Ultimately, though, Sunak will plump for whenever he feels has the best chance of success.

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2023

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