Boris Johnson has ordered swift progress on parliamentary approval of legislation allowing him to set the date of the next general election, increasing Labour fears that he could make a dash to the polls as early as 2023.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, has told the prime minister he expects the legislation to “breeze through” parliament and to gain royal assent early next year.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader, has put his party on standby for Johnson to “cut and run” and to hold an early election if the Conservatives maintain a strong lead in opinion polls.
The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 introduced by David Cameron’s coalition government removed the longstanding power of the prime minister to call a general election and instead created what should normally be a five-year period between polls.
By repealing the act through his dissolution and calling of parliament bill, Johnson is regaining the power to choose the timing of an election at the moment of maximum political advantage, with the proviso that he can call it no later than five years after the previous poll.
Starmer is adamant that Johnson could go for an early election, telling the Observer last month: “I’ve instructed the party to be ready for 2023.” The Labour leader believes Johnson could try and ride the anticipated strong economic bounce following the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson has privately told colleagues he has no intention of calling an election before 2024. He won an 80-seat Commons majority at the December 2019 election and argues he needs time to deliver on his agenda — notably the “levelling up” plan to narrow regional inequalities — once the pandemic has receded, according to people briefed on his thinking.
Moreover, if the coronavirus variant that was first identified in India spirals out of control in the UK, it could require more lockdowns and hit the economic recovery.
One cabinet minister said: “Mention an early election and Boris blows your head off. I can’t see any chance of it happening.”
Labour strategists admitted the threat of a 2023 poll helps Starmer reinforce the need for urgent change in his party, which suffered a major setback on May 6 when it lost the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives and suffered significant losses in polls to local councils.
So why would Johnson go for a 2023 election? Labour’s thinking is based partly on economic calculations that suggest this might be a sweet spot when Britons are still basking in the glow of the end of the pandemic.
After the UK recorded the worst economic downturn in 300 years in 2020, the outlook for 2021 has been getting brighter every month, with economists revising up their growth forecasts as the government stepped up its Covid-19 vaccination programme and companies coped better than expected with the latest round of lockdown restrictions.
With the public finances already proving stronger than anticipated in the current financial year, chancellor Rishi Sunak should be in a position to use his autumn Budget to announce additional public spending in 2022-23 to help speed the recovery from Covid-19.
He might even be able to rein-in some of his planned tax increases, such as the freezing of the income tax personal allowance, which is due to start next April.
By the spring 2023, the Bank of England predicts unemployment will fall back to its pre-pandemic level of 4.3 per cent.
Julian Jessop, an independent economist, said: “The good news of the strong economic recovery is the opportunity it gives the chancellor to reverse planned spending cuts and even spray a few extra goodies around the economy.”
But memories of the recovery could begin to dim after 2023, and some of the lingering costs of the pandemic and Brexit are more likely to show if Johnson opts for an election in 2024.
Interest rates are likely to start rising in 2023, making borrowing more expensive, and if the government’s economic stimulus has proved excessive, this could become evident in persistent inflation.
Johnson will also weigh up political considerations. The public inquiry into Covid-19 will be set up in early 2022 and Johnson would prefer that its conclusions — likely to be critical of the prime minister’s early handling of the pandemic — are presented safely the other side of an election.
Another factor is a review of parliamentary constituency boundaries, to be concluded by July 2023, which will add 10 seats in England, where the Tories are strongest, and cut two in Scotland and eight in Wales, where the party is weakest.
It has long been assumed that Johnson would wait to fight the next election on the new boundaries, which will result in fewer constituencies in northern England and an additional six seats in the south-east.
But given recent Conservative electoral gains in the north, and a relatively strong performance by Labour in the south-east, some ministers admitted the boundary review might not be quite as favourable to Johnson as previously thought.
Johnson’s closest allies are convinced that the spring or summer of 2024 are the most likely dates for the next election.
“That would still give us six months until we had to go the polls, so we wouldn’t be running up against the clock,” said one.
But from early next year, with the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act repealed, Johnson will be able to keep everyone guessing.