British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is anticipated to announce a general election in 2024, with the exact timing sparking intense speculation. The maximum term for a UK parliament is five years, and the last nationwide vote occurred on December 12, 2019. The upcoming election must take place by January 28, 2025, allowing for a full five-year term since the current parliament initially convened.
Sunak is expected to formally request the dissolution of parliament from the head of state, King Charles III, likely involving a visit to Buckingham Palace. Following tradition, the prime minister, leader of the largest party in parliament, will then announce the election to the nation from outside Number 10 Downing Street.
This announcement marks the commencement of a five-week campaigning period, during which current Members of Parliament (MPs) lose their status and become candidates if they are seeking re-election. The government enters a “pre-election period,” historically referred to as “purdah,” imposing restrictions on its actions until the next government is elected.
Indeed, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland comprises four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The political structure involves the division of the region into 650 constituencies.
Under the “first-past-the-post” electoral system, voters in each constituency can cast their ballot for one candidate. The candidate who garners the highest number of votes in a constituency is then elected to represent that specific area in the parliament.
For a political party to form the government, it needs to secure a majority of at least 326 seats out of the 650 available. When a party achieves this majority, its leader becomes the prime minister, and the government is formed.
If no party surpasses the majority threshold in a UK general election, the party with the most Members of Parliament (MPs) often forms a coalition with a smaller group, a scenario seen in 2010 when the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
The Institute for Government think tank identifies three probable timeframes for the next general election: May 2024, autumn 2024, and January 2025. Opting for May would align the election with scheduled local elections, potentially avoiding the risk of poor results in those polls reflecting negatively on the government. There is also speculation that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might consider an earlier election if faced with challenges from right-wing Tory rebels regarding his approach to addressing migration issues.
An autumn election, likely in October to avoid clashing with the US election, would provide Sunak with more time to fulfill key promises such as economic growth, reducing National Health Service waiting lists, and addressing migrant boat arrivals.
Choosing an election date close to two years into his term could be more appealing for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, presenting a more substantial tenure than 18 months, which may hold significance for him.
Winter elections are infrequent in the UK, and a campaign over the Christmas period would likely be unpopular with both voters and candidates, making January a less probable scenario among the three suggested by the Institute for Government.
Ultimately, Sunak’s decision will likely hinge on the timing that he perceives as offering the best chance of success. The Conservative Party, in power since 2010, has consistently lagged behind the main opposition Labour Party by double digits in most opinion polls for over a year. This is attributed to factors such as the severe cost-of-living crisis and internal conflicts within the Conservative Party, leading to five different prime ministers since the 2016 Brexit vote. The prevailing sentiment is not so much overwhelming enthusiasm for Labour but more a reflection of the challenges faced by the Conservative Party.
Considering these dynamics, there is speculation that Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, may be in a favorable position to become the next prime minister.
With over a year until the polling day, there is ample time for various developments that could impact the competitiveness of the race.
The Conservative Party might see an opportunity in voter indifference towards both leaders, potentially leading to a scenario known as a “hung parliament,” where no party attains a majority.