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British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has gambled the house on a July election. Northeastern experts explain what might be behind his thinking

The element of surprise and an improving inflation situation could have influenced the Conservative Party’s leader to confound expectation and call a summer election, Northeastern minds suggest.

Rishi Sunak wearing a white shirt and blue tie waving at an election campaign.
U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak surprised political commentators and also members of his own Conservative Party by calling a July 4 election. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

LONDON — Rishi Sunak stood outside the famous black door of No. 10 Downing Street in the sopping rain and bet the house.

The prime minister confounded the political consensus by announcing Wednesday that a U.K. general election will be held on July 4.

An election had to legally be held by January 2025, but most Westminster insiders had expected — given his ruling Conservative Party is about 20 points behind its rival Labour Party in most polls — that Sunak would hold off on calling a contest at least until autumn.

Josephine Harmon, an assistant professor of political science at Northeastern University in London, suspects the element of wanting to catch his opponents, including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, off guard was factored into the prime minister’s decision to go early.

“I think that he wanted to actually capture that element of surprise,” Harmon said, “and perhaps reasoned that Labour would be in disarray and that he would have a strategic advantage, if you like, by calling the election.

“That is probably right, but I imagine that Labour has been anticipating that an election could be called at any moment — they wouldn’t have entirely been caught by surprise. But I think it was certainly an element that he was going for.”

Another influence on Sunak’s thinking, Harmon said, could be that an election held during the colder winter months, when energy bills could be biting again, might have meant a lower turnout among the Tories’ core supporters, which tend to be older voters.

There might even be a personal element in it, because it is such a surprising move….It might be that he wants to get it over and done with.”

Josephine Harmon, assistant professor of political science

So too could have been a desire to conduct the election on his and the Tories’ own terms rather than waiting in vain for an uptick in fortunes, she suggested.

Sunak’s call comes despite concerns from his own members of Parliament and ministers — Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris reportedly told Sunak that he would have waited longer — regarding the July 4 date.

Harmon said: “I think another factor is that there might even be a personal element in it, because it is such a surprising move. There is a 20-odd point lead for Labour right now and I think there was an element that he was a bit sick of being a lame duck. It might be that he wants to get it over and done with.”

Unlike the set four-year rolling system of electing a president in the U.S., British prime ministers have the ability to use political events to their advantage when setting an election date.

A poor set of local election results in May had bolstered the thinking that Sunak would play for time, but a recent reduction in the headline consumer inflation rate appears to have pushed him to choose a summer date.

As James Carville said after Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 U.S. presidential election, it was “the economy, stupid” that can win out during campaigns.

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Harmon said polling shows that the key three issues for the British public are health, immigration and the economy. “The economy might be a driving factor for him if he is looking at inflation numbers and making a strategic judgment on the basis of that,” she added.

On the same day Sunak named the election date, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that the consumer price index measure of inflation had dropped to 2.3% in April, down from 3.2% the month before. 

Sunak has made cutting inflation one of the top priorities of his premiership and the figure now stands close to the Bank of England’s target of 2%.

Economist Marianna Koli, director of social sciences at Northeastern in London, said the drop in inflation is “good news for everybody,” with the cost-of-living crisis having gripped Britain for the past two years.

But she points out that voters are unlikely to feel the difference in their pocket before casting their vote in the next six weeks.

“I don’t think people will notice a big difference in their supermarket bill in the next couple of months,” she said.

“Prices aren’t really going down. What I think they will still find is that with things like services, there is what economists call ‘sticky inflation,’ so that is likely to not be going anywhere. 

“Service inflation is still running at about 6%. That includes things like getting repairs done on your house — housing costs are a really big concern, with housing an enormous issue in the U.K.”

In a bid to control inflation, the Bank of England’s independent Monetary Policy Committee has hiked interest rates to 5.25%. With the committee due to meet on June 20, the Tories will be hoping for an interest rate cut that they could use to strengthen the core election message that their cautious handling of the economy is bearing fruit.

But Koli said she would be surprised if there is an interest rate reduction before polling day.

“There is a reason why central banks are independent from government in most countries and that is precisely because if it was controlled by the government, they would do it [cut the rate],” she said.

“And so the Monetary Policy Committee likes to not think about the political obstacles, but instead focus on the economic ones.

“I’d be surprised if they were to cut interest rates in June. One never knows and they will have their reasons, but I think that service inflation is still a worry.”

An argument made in favor of a November election was that it would have potentially allowed for another round of tax cuts ahead of the country going to the polls, given the U.K. traditionally holds two fiscal events a year, one in spring and the other in autumn.

Koli highlighted that, as well as the International Monetary Fund warning that the two cuts made between January and April to national insurance (a form of tax used to pay for pensions and health care) were “pointing in the direction of fiscal irresponsibility,” tax cuts are not necessarily going to win over voters who value public sector investments.

“We know that there are things that the U.K. government will need to spend on,” she said.

“When we are looking at priorities for the election, we have got the economy obviously — an enormous one. Another enormous one is the National Health Service and another big one is water quality, for example. 

“So all of these things are a concern for voters, probably more than rather abstract economic figures. They want to know if they can safely swim at their local beach, for example. So going for the tax cutting approach could get the core Tory vote out but probably wouldn’t get the swing voters.”

Edmund Neill, a London-based associate professor of modern history, said that, while a July election is a rare event in Britain, Sunak’s decision to opt for a six-week campaign has parallels to 1997 when former Tory Prime Minister John Major went for the same lengthy run-in.

Major’s decision did not dent the public’s desire for change, however, with Tony Blair winning a landslide for Labour, marking the start of a 13-year period in opposition for the Conservatives.

“In a sense, they tried this in 1997, but I wonder if the result is going to be rather the same,” Neill said. “The calculation is the same, that basically the more that you get to look at the opposition, the more the gilt falls off.

“But of course it is very double-edged because would you bet on Suella Braverman [the outspoken former home secretary] keeping on message for six weeks? I don’t think I would.”

While much has been made of Starmer’s efforts to bring Labour back into the center ground in order to try to emulate Blair’s victory in 1997, Neill stresses that the conditions are very different when compared to 2024. 

By 1997, the economic outlook had picked up from its dire prospects at the beginning of the decade and global affairs were calmer than they are today. Starmer, who had been director of public prosecutions for England and Wales before being elected to Parliament in 2015, is also not viewed as having the same panache as Blair. 

But Neill speculates that the public might be affable to his style of leadership after a period of tumult that included the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, in the same way that they welcomed Margaret Thatcher’s successor in 1990.

“Maybe it is now the time for good, boring government,” he said.

“It could be a bit like the sort of early days of John Major, where everybody breathes a huge sigh of relief and actually quite likes dull, competent people doing relatively uncontentious things, and they will constantly blame the previous government and hope that that can be done for as long as possible.”