Tories Pour Cold Water On Early Election Rumours
John Johnston, Kate Proctor and Alain Tolhurst
October 13, 2021.
Talk of an early general election arose repeatedly at this year's party conferences, but Conservative MPs and activists have dismissed the prospect, after Labour seemed to be gearing up to go to the polls sooner rather than later.
Boris Johnson has until December 2024 to hold an election, but there has been much speculation that he could choose to call a poll as early as 2023 in order to capitalise on his party's popularity before the full economic impact of the pandemic and Brexit really hit home.
Oliver Dowden told conference delegates in Manchester last week that Johnson had instructed him to “make sure” the party was ready to go, and the process of scrapping the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which removed the power of the PM to set the election date without approval from 2/3 of MPs, is already well underway.
At their own conference in Brighton a week prior, Labour seemed especially game for an early ballot, with leader Keir Starmer appealing to the party to rally behind his leadership and get “serious” about winning. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell told a fringe event he believed the next election would be called in the next 18 months, and in an unusual show of party unity, said he could imagine Starmer walking into No.10.
But despite still riding high on the Conservatives’ huge 2019 victory, MPs and activists gathered in Manchester played down the chances of an early poll. One MP was concerned that the pandemic meant many of the key promises that had won over unlikely Tory voters in 2019 – most notably “levelling up” – remain undelivered, meaning this government needs more time to prove itself before returning to the polls.
“Our record at the next election has got to go beyond our handling [of Covid],” they told PoliticsHome. “The government, frankly, did an incredible job with the vaccine programme, and the furlough scheme protected jobs, livelihoods and the economy. But now we’ve got a really ambitious plan to get the country not just back on track, but in a better position than it was before.”
They noted the 1945 election, which saw Prime Minister Winston Churchill swept from office in a landslide Labour victory and urged Johnson to hold his nerve. "We’ve got to show that not only can we lead the country through crisis, but that we can grasp the opportunity of building back stronger," they added.
One Conservative councillor, who won their seat from Labour in May’s general election, said the push for an early poll could wipe out the unprecedented gains made in 2019.
“It would be too risky,” they said. “There is no way we would be able to hold all those red wall seats. We have taken over councils and constituencies that the party haven’t held in decades, and we need time to overturn the mess made by Labour before voters can trust that we aren’t just the same,” they added. “If we get the space and support to do that it will pay dividends.”
One high profile Cabinet figure speaking to journalists at a conference drinks reception also believed it would be premature to call an election before having had a chance to make more headway on domestic issues. They were genuinely concerned that the pandemic meant the party had not yet delivered enough, and crucially needed to tackle the NHS backlog.
Some Tory activists believe Dowden’s apparent election readiness could have been misinterpreted. When he told party staff “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”, shortly after his appointment as Conservative party co-chair, he may simply have meant as much time as possible is needed to get the party ready to go to the polls, rather than an indication he was getting the wheels in motion for an early election.
While the jubilant mood at Conservative party conference may have put some in the mood for an early election – not least because despite numerous crises circling, the party remains ahead in the polls – one activist warned they mustn’t get carried away yet.
“Lots of people I spoke to [in Manchester] were bang-up for an early election, but I suspect that was just conference giddiness,” they said. “We still have so much to sort out across the country before we even consider it. In my view: no food, no fuel, no chance.”
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