1 September 2022

Why we need an autumn election


This been a long and painful summer for the Conservative Party. The defenestration of one Prime Minister has been followed by the often unedifying race to find his replacement – only for some to conclude they didn’t want to see him gone after all. Whoever does succeed Boris Johnson – and few would now bet against Liz Truss – will take cold comfort that the next few months are going to be even worse. 

Last week, we saw the energy price cap pass £3,500 – more than three times what it was only a year before. Inflation has busted all the Bank of England’s expectations and looks set to remain high all next year. NHS waiting lists are surging towards a truly astonishing 10 million. There are serious questions as to whether it will be able to cope with a bad Covid or flu season. War in Ukraine continues, with Putin potentially turning off the taps. This winter we face an Omnicrisis of staggering proportions. 

All of this will require costly interventions by the Government. Truss may have run on a platform of lower taxes and going for growth, but the economic headwinds suggest a recession, borrowing, and a furlough-esque spending package. If the worst predictions of £6,000 energy price caps, 19% inflation and a collapse in the NHS are proved right, the next government will soon be ludicrously unpopular. That does not bode well for a general election in 2024.

Even if Johnson’s successor can weather those torrid winter months, they will then have only around a year and a half to deliver the rest of their policy agenda. For Liz Truss the problem is that the elements of the Government’s approach she has pledged to keep – like the Rwanda policy, or challenging the Northern Ireland Protocol – will struggle to get through the House of Lords. Nor will the next PM have a mandate from the general public to break with the manifesto on which the Tories were elected in 2019.

All of which points to one harrowing prospect: we may need yet another general election this autumn. Caveats abound about the wisdom of going to the public in the midst of an economic slump, but it may be the only way for a future leader to get their own mandate and majority before the Government is overwhelmed by all those overlapping crises. Waiting deep to see if inflation can be tamed and bills reduced is too risky. Like Jim Callaghan during the ‘Winter of Discontent’, those myriad challenges of high prices and flagging hospitals could easily undermine the PM’s authority before they have even got started.

Now, the polls certainly do not look good for the Conservatives. Surveys over the last month have given Labour a lead between 3 and 14 points, with Keir Starmer’s pledge to freeze energy bills apparently going down well. A recent poll for GB News suggested that almost twice as many voters would prefer Starmer to be Prime Minister than Truss. However, should Truss emerge victorious on Monday, she will have at least a few weeks where almost all the focus will be on her and her new ministerial team – if she is bold, that represents a vital change to seize the initiative.

The four most recent leaders to enter Downing St mid-term – Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Gordon Brown and John Major – all got an immediate poll boost from taking office. That’s not altogether surprising, since becoming Prime Minister makes one seem immediately more prime ministerial. In the succeeding weeks, the next Tory leader will have a chance to lay out a package of emergency measures, then set out their stall at party conference at the start of October.

The nature of that emergency package is, of course, absolutely crucial.  Truss’ hints at VAT cuts and a standoffishness about ‘handouts’ may appeal to some Tory members, but they are not what the public is expecting – especially with threatened bill boycotts, businesses going under, and an opposition offering big, expensive alternative policies. 

On the other hand, if the next PM can come up with a crowd-pleasing set of support measures, that offers a clear chance to change the political weather and head into conference season feeling a lot more optimistic. That might then be the moment to go to the public, arguing that the change Britain needs requires a fresh mandate from the public. History suggests it could be a worthwhile gamble. 

You have to go back a fair bit, but previous Tory Prime Ministers have called an election immediately after entering office and been rewarded with a majority. Both Andrew Bonar Law and Anthony Eden did so in 1922 and 1955 respectively. In both periods, the Conservatives had been unpopular under the previous Prime Minister. By contrast, Gordon Brown gained a reputation as a ‘bottler’ for not going in the autumn of 2007. Theresa May also suffered from waiting too long, and then allowing the campaign itself to go on for too long. 

Should we face an election later this year, it would be the closest thing we have had to a ‘crisis election’ since February 1974. Then, Edward Heath famously went to the country asking ‘Who governs Britain?’ only to meet the electorate’s reply of ‘not you, mate’. 

That may seem a deeply unpromising precedent for another snap poll, but it’s worth noting that Heath’s campaign suffered from two major problems. Firstly, he was widely seen as having waited too long to call the election, missing the moment of maximum tension with the miners. Good behaviour from the miners during the campaign, and the revelation they were paid less than comparable workers, undermined Heath’s central argument. It’s crucial, therefore, that if the next PM goes to the country they do so before events conspire to wreck their central platform – that she or he is the right leader for this Omnicrisis. 

Heath’s other problem was the concerted opposition of his most charismatic and popular backbencher: Enoch Powell. Powell made a speech towards the end of the campaign calling on voters to back the (then Eurosceptic). Labour due to Heath’s support for Britain’s membership of the European Communities. There is no obvious analogue on the back benches this time, but there is the rather thorny issue of the current Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson may not be making a speech telling voters to back Labour any time soon, but he clearly believes he has been stitched up and retains the affection of many members. Talk persists that he has his eyes on another run at the top job if his successor comes a cropped and Tory MPs want to give a proven election-winner another go. The most decisive way to kill off a nascent ‘Bring Back Boris’ campaign is for his successor to win their own mandate, and in doing so prove that they too are an election winner.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.