Rishi Sunak again refuses to rule out July general election

Rishi Sunak has again refused to rule out a July general election, amid speculation that a disastrous set of local elections results for the Tories could force his hand.

The Prime Minister said he would not “say anything more than I’ve already said”, which is that the national poll is likely to be in the second half of the year.

Most Westminster analysts take this as meaning October or November, although it could technically also mean July.

But a drubbing in mayoral and council elections on May 2 could either lead to a challenge to his leadership or persuade him that an earlier polling day could be a better solution than limping on with a divided party.

The defection of a Conservative ex-health minister to Labour could further spook already restive Tory MPs and increases the pressure on the Prime Minister.

Dr Dan Poulter on Saturday announced he was quitting the Tory Party, which he accused of no longer prioritising the overstretched NHS.

Mr Sunak was asked on Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, recorded before Dr Poulter’s shock defection, whether the latter half of 2024 could mean July.

The Prime Minister said: “I’m not going to say anything more than I’ve already said, I’ve been very clear about that.”

Pressed repeatedly whether he was ruling out July, he said: “I’m not going to do that.

“You’re going to try and draw whatever conclusion you want from what I say. I’m going to always try and say the same thing. You should just listen to what I said, same thing I’ve said all year.”

Mr Sunak also signalled he could wait for economic improvements to come through, in an apparent hint at a poll later in the year.

“I’m determined to make sure that people feel when the election comes that the future is better, that we have turned the corner,” he said.

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In less than a week, the Tories are expected to lose about half of their council seats up for election, while their two most high-profile regional mayors face difficult contests.

Some analysts believe defeat for West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen could lead to the Prime Minister facing a no-confidence vote, with 52 Tory MPs needed to trigger one.

The Prime Minister told Sir Trevor that “local elections are always difficult for incumbent parties”, as he attacked Labour-run areas and “rising crime in London, rising council tax in Birmingham”.

There were rumours swirling in Westminster on Friday that Mr Sunak could fire the starting gun on an election campaign as soon as Monday in a bid to thwart a possible challenge from restive MPs, though Downing Street brushed them off.

The latest possible date he could hold the election is January 28 2025.

Mr Sunak sought to bolster his premiership this week with a flurry of announcements, including the passing of Rwanda asylum legislation and a pledge to spend 2.5% of gross domestic product on defence by 2030.

Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and Home Secretary James Cleverly have both warned colleagues against ousting Mr Sunak before the general election.

Home Office minister Chris Philp conceded that voters “do feel grumpy with the Government” amid dire poll ratings for the Tories.

But he predicted on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that the party’s position will “significantly improve” closer to a general election when “it becomes more of a choice rather than a sort of referendum on do you feel grumpy with the Government”.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused Mr Sunak of “bottling” an election.

“He should get on with it,” Mr Streeting told Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips.

“People are crying out for an opportunity to deliver their verdict on this Government and to vote for change.

“That’s why the Prime Minister bottled an election earlier this year. That’s why he’s bottling it now. That’s why he will have to be taken out of Downing Street by his fingernails by the end of the year.”