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Rishi Sunak giving a speech in rain.

Rishi Sunak fires election starting gun with a damp whimper – but Labour will want to play down talk of a landslide

“It’s the optics that matter” is a modern cliche of political life. It doesn’t matter what you say so much as how you say it – and where you say it. If this is true, then the early election omens are not good for Rishi Sunak.

Standing at the lectern, he looked like a schoolboy who’d been sent into the yard for being naughty. Hunched shoulders and sodden smile, he grimaced through a speech that was badly written and far too long.

Where he gave the speech was nowhere unusual – in front of Downing Street like so many other prime ministers before him. Except he did it in the pouring rain, and was thoroughly soaked before he’d even got to the point. The sound of New Labour’s anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” blasting out in the background from a nearby protester’s speaker only added to the sense of the bizarre.

Never has the starting gun for an election been fired with such a whimper.

So why now? The immediate reasoning is the economy. Recent inflation figures – 2.3% and not the expected 2.1% – meant that the hope of a June rate cut was a forlorn one. The rationale for playing the long game and pushing back the general election to later in the year was tied to a level of economic optimism which has now been dashed.

The prospect of more small boats crossing the Channel during the summer months is another very good reason to get this date with destiny out of the way sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, add in a restless party, defections to Labour and a broader sense that no matter what the Conservatives did, the polls would stay stubbornly in Labour’s favour, and the benefits of holding out until October grew thinner and thinner. In the end, waiting until later in the year risked making the Tories’ eventual losses even greater. Sunak must also be exhausted – physically and mentally drained by governing under huge pressures.

Rishi Sunak walking into Downing Street with a soaking wet back.
A man with a plan in need of a towel. Alamy

A reasonable observer might presume from this situation that there is no way “Rishi can win”. It is indeed the case that a working majority for Labour is currently the most likely outcome once crosses are drawn on ballot papers with stubby pencils in six weeks’ time.

But – and there has to be a but – talk of a landslide is dangerous hyperbole for those hoping the Labour party will win. Political apathy and any perception of electoral complacency could puncture Labour’s bubble. Being 30 points ahead in the polls is worth nothing unless you can get your supporters into those ballot boxes to make those crosses with those stubby pencils.

The second “but” is that the Labour party has a habit of clinching defeat from the jaws of victory. A second-string element of the Conservative’s long-game strategy was simply hanging onto power in the hope that Labour might self-destruct and implode due to some internal catastrophe, crisis or disaster – or that an unexpected “black swan” event would suddenly leave Labour unelectable and the Tories in pole position.

The impact of the highly improbable is – as statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb has explained – as hard to predict as it is to mitigate, but are there any black swans flying on the horizon for Labour?

The answer is yes. The recent local elections in England revealed a severe disconnect between the Labour Party and Muslim communities. In 58 local council wards analysed by the BBC, where more than one-in-five residents identify as Muslim, Labour’s share of the vote was 21% down on 2021, the last time most seats were contested. The Israeli-Palestine war could yet have a significant effect on the next general election.

Keir Starmer giving a speech behind a logo that reads 'Britain's Future'.
Labour has been leading in the polls for well over a year but it is starting from very far behind the Tories in terms of seat numbers. EPA/Tolga Akmen

Which leads into a third and final reason why talk of a large Labour success needs to be treated with caution – the lack of a connection. Labour may well be ahead in the polls but this does not mean that they are necessarily popular. There is no doubt that the Labour party has pursued a “ming vase approach”, in the sense that they have made political progress by criticising the Tories while refusing to provide policy details about exactly what they would do in government.

The issue is that, with an election now called, Labour must transition at pace from an official opposition to a credible “government in waiting”. Criticising the Conservatives is no longer enough, a credible and integrated policy portfolio must now be presented.

Labour is likely to win. But nothing is guaranteed.

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