When is the next general election?

Consensus in Westminster 'shifting' to a May 2024 vote as Tories look to cash in on reviving economy before small boat crossings pick up

Journalist holds frontpage reading 'General Election Now' outside of No. 10 Downing Street
Rishi Sunak has ruled out holding an early general election, claiming it is 'not what the country wants'
(Image credit: Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak has ruled out holding an early general election, claiming it is "not what the country wants" at this time. 

Speaking to Sky News's political editor Beth Rigby, the prime minister rejected suggestions he was a "man without a mandate" having lost the Tory leadership election last year before being appointed just weeks later without a vote from members, leading to accusations on the backbenches that it was "undemocratic" and a "coronation".  

Sunak took over from Liz Truss promising to restore stability and trust in the government but has repeatedly ruled out holding a general election, claiming that as leader of the Tory party he had a mandate from 2019, when Boris Johnson secured an 80-seat majority. 

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Does Sunak have to call a general election?

"Constitutionally, Sunak is correct," said Emilio Casalicchio at Politico. According to the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, the current Parliament will be automatically dissolved on 17 December 2024, five years after it first met. Polling would then take place 25 days later, meaning the latest the next general election could be held would be January 2025. 

The government has control over whether an election should be called earlier, which is unlikely, unless "dozens of Tory MPs suddenly go rogue and decide to bring down their own regime via a no-confidence vote in the Commons", explained Casalicchio. 

Unlike the US presidential systems, the British public votes for a "governing party rather than a specific prime minister", he added. As Sunak said in his first speech as prime minister, "the mandate my party earned in 2019 is not the sole property of any one individual, it is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us".

When will he call one? 

The view at Westminster is "switching" said the New Statesman's political editor Andrew Marr, "a general election in the spring is now regarded as plausible, even likely, by senior figures across the political spectrum".  

In July, Bloomberg reported that, according to "a person familiar with his thinking", Sunak was "eyeing holding the UK's next general election in November 2024 in order to allow the economy as much time as possible to recover before going to the polls". 

It has long been assumed the prime minister would give himself as much time as possible for his policies to kick in and start being felt by voters. In "trying to win over the public with policies for motorists and rolling back the transition to net zero on ordinary families", Sunak and his team "genuinely believe they can win a fifth Conservative term", said Rigby. Why then would he bet against himself and go to the country early?  

There is, however, a growing counter argument, said Marr. The first is that ministers are "increasingly confident" their appeal to the Supreme Court over Rwanda deportations will go the government's way. With flights taking off just as crossings become more difficult over the winter this could see Sunak claim victory on his small boats policy – but only if he goes to the country before numbers pick up in the summer.  

Then there is the slowly improving economic picture, with inflation coming down and a tax-cutting budget expected in March. 

The idea then, said the Big Issue, "is to cash in on a reviving economy but get ahead of another summer of small boat crossings". A May 2024 general election would also have the added benefit of coinciding with local elections that are expected to give Sunak a bloody nose and would provide "the worst possible backdrop for a general election later in the year and might increase the sense of an inevitable Labour victory", wrote Marr.  

With Labour enjoying a double-digit poll lead over the Tories, "in reality, the PM can't risk an election now", said Rigby. Going early would be a huge gamble for the prime minister – but maybe one he feels he must take if he is to have any chance of winning a new term in Downing Street.  

It seems Keir Starmer is also not taking an autumn election for granted, warning his shadow cabinet of the likelihood of an early summer poll and telling them to prepare accordingly. 

"Politics is an emotional art, not a cold science", concluded Marr, "an election this spring has never seemed likelier." 

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