The party conference season is a landmark on the political road to the next general election. When will the journey end? It’s due to finish on Thursday May 2 2024. But hang on a moment. That’s only election day as required by the Fixed Terms Parliament Act.
The Act has been by-passed in two of the three general elections held since it came into force. And in any event, the Conservatives have pledged to abolish the Act. The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, which will do the trick, has passed the Commons and is trundling through the Lords.
So Boris Johnson won’t be bound by the May 2024 date. He will have the kind of room for manoeuvre, when it comes to picking a date, that Prime Ministers had before the Act came into effect. But this has a potential downside for him as well as an upside.
The upside is that, barring some extraordinary tangle with the Monarch, he will get the date he wants. The downside is that he will be under existential pressure to call it right.
Go early, as in 2017, and the election risks blowing up in your face. Delay, as Gordon Brown did in 2009, and you risk being lampooned as a great big fearty. Not to mention being boxed in as time runs out.
One factor said to push the election back to no earlier than the autumn of 2023 is the boundary review. But can we be so sure this is the case?
The conventional wisdom is that Johnson won’t risk an election without the extra Conservative seats that it should provide in the bag. But there will be fewer of these than one might expect.
John Curtice has been quoted as saying that the Party will gain approximately six in England. Robert Hayward’s figure is between five and ten.
The gain would matter in a close contest. But one should perhaps balance against it any incumbency effect in the seats won by new Conservative MPs in 2019.
Evidence for it is hard to find, but one take is that an MP re-standing for the first time is no longer so obsure that his constituents haven’t heard of him, but not yet so familiar that they’ve grown tired of him. So he gains a one-off incumbency boost.
Changing boundaries might weaken any such effect, at least in some places. So while a general election before the autumn of 2023 at the earliest is unlikely, it can’t be ruled out.
ConservativeHome is told that CCHQ will start cranking up the Parliamentary selection process early next year. Having now been through the usual post-election purge of the candidates’ list, it will fire the starting-gun on selections for marginals (or targets if you prefer). Oliver Dowden has been reported as telling CCHQ staff to be as ready for an early poll as a late one.
All in all, there may be a case for going early (if post-Covid growth soars) and will be one for going late (“let’s show the voters we mean business”). But the boundary may matter less than some assume.