After the eerie calm of the Christmas holidays, the New Year began with Britain’s two leading politicians each making key speeches that look like the starter pistol for a likely general election in 2024.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, leader of the ruling Conservative party, has cast himself as the continuity candidate. His speech on 8 January urged voters to “stick with the plan” and that the country was “pointing in the right direction.”
In contrast, his rival, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, who is far ahead in the polls, is claiming the mantle of change. A few days earlier, he said, the Conservatives have “nothing good to show” after 14 years in office, insisting, “they can't change Britain.”
It is perhaps inevitable that in an election, the incumbent will try to emphasise their office successes while their opponent emphasises the changes they will bring.
Yet British politics has not been so straightforward. In fact, it is Sunak who, until recently, claimed to be the radical, as were many in his party who oversaw the changes brought about by Brexit.
Starmer, in contrast, has been remarkably cautious. Many of his supporters worry that he has said too little about how Labour would change the UK once in power, relying instead on the unpopularity of Sunak.
With an election now looking likely at some point this year, how are the two candidates likely to approach 2024, and can anything stop what looks like Labour’s inevitable victory?
An election in 2024?
By law, the UK must hold a general election by 28 January 2025, at the very latest. However, the Prime Minister has the privilege of setting the date, which Sunak can do at any time before then.
This advantage has allowed prime ministers in the past to call an early election at a time when they are ahead in the polls or, alternatively, delay the vote as long as possible in the hope that their popularity might pick up.
This latter position is where Sunak finds himself now. The last election, called early by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saw the Conservatives win an overwhelming victory, taking 365 seats in parliament to Labour’s near-record low 202.
But since then, Conservative popularity has plummeted. Johnson made several high-profile errors during the Covid pandemic, not least overseeing a culture of rule-breaking within his own team that saw videos of staffers partying at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the country was in lockdown.
After disgruntled Conservative MPs forced him out, Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, was a disaster.
In office for only 49 days, she introduced radical tax cuts that increased interest rates and worsened inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, prompting the Conservatives, once again, to ditch their leader, damaging their reputation for both economic competence and political stability.