Both major parties should be aware that the next General Election may not be a two-horse race - Jayne Dowle

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy year in politics. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirms that the next UK general election will definitely be held in 2024, quashing speculation he would cling on until the last possible moment before throwing himself and a bitterly divided and divisive Conservative party on our mercy.

Under electoral law, the Prime Minister could have waited until January 28, 2025. Given the febrile atmosphere at Westminster, rife with the Rwanda debacle, Number 10’s dissembling at the Covid inquiry, and a cost of living crisis showing no sign of abating, many thought Mr Sunak might push his luck and wait at least another year.

There are probably 101 reasons why he’s made this calculated gamble now, but perhaps one straightforward explanation. Sunak’s distanced demeanour in recent weeks suggests that he’s as fed up as the rest of us. His nickname is ‘tetchy’ apparently, and he seems to be living up to it.

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Despite the glazed expression and autocue answers at the annual liaison committee’s pre-Christmas get-together, where he fielded questions from the chairs of backbench select committees on key topics such as Rwanda, Israel/Gaza and wealth inequality, he’s told journalists he wants to remain in Downing Street until at least 2030.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (centre) during his visit to meet British troops at Tapa forward operating Nato base, near the Russian border in Estonia. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA WireLabour leader Sir Keir Starmer (centre) during his visit to meet British troops at Tapa forward operating Nato base, near the Russian border in Estonia. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (centre) during his visit to meet British troops at Tapa forward operating Nato base, near the Russian border in Estonia. PIC: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

At this general election announcement speech, in Downing Street just before Christmas, he insisted he’s “fired up” and “hungry to win”. You can just imagine him saying this in that grey hoodie he’s fond of, fist-pumping the air.

He’s going to have to put some serious steps in over the coming months. When, in early December, IPSOS pollsters took the national temperature towards Mr Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, only 24 per cent of voters felt ‘favourable’ towards the PM, whilst 52 per cent said they were ‘unfavourable’.

Such ratings should mean an open goal for His Majesty’s Opposition, but Labour have their own work cut out. As an urgent priority, leader Sir Keir Starmer needs to reverse a 42 per cent ‘unfavourable’ rating on his personal qualities from the public, because at the moment, only 30 per cent feel ‘favourable’ towards him becoming the next Prime Minister.

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Both major parties saw a drop-off in voter favour during December; Labour support stood at 41 per cent, according to IPSOS, which sounds impressive until you learn that this represents a fall of five percentage points from November. However, just under a quarter (24 per cent) of voters said that they currently intended to vote Conservative at the next general election, with Tory support dropping a percentage point from November.

Both major party leaders should be aware that this general election may not be a two-horse race.

Smaller parties, including the Liberal Democrats, at 13 per cent – up a point from November, and the Green Party, jumping up three percentage points with the public to take nine per cent of backing, seem to be connecting with voters more than the two titans on either side of the House of Commons.

Despite a few personal failings, not least the mystery of the Prime Minister’s disappearing WhatsApp messages, and that near-miss over the Rwanda vote, no-one could doubt that both Sunak and Starmer are fairly steady hands on the tillers of increasingly fractious parties. This is no mean feat and should not be under-estimated.

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However, where both fail is when it comes to ‘reaching out’ (you’re going to hear this a lot) to the public. Where is the passion, the reforming zeal, on matters close to our hearts, such as the ailing NHS, crumbling and failing schools, jobs and the economy, and looming over it all, stubbornly high interest rates and the cost of living?

When was the last time either of these two highly-educated, urbane individuals convinced you that they actually understood the challenges which ordinary voters are dealing with every day?

They just don’t have the populist, some say common, touch. It will be vital for them to get out on the campaign trail, but I’m already cringing at the thought of either being photo-opped ‘enjoying’ a pint of beer, a challenge Nigel Farage, planning a return to head Reform UK, especially excels at.

If the general election happens late spring – with May being the traditional month – to combine with local elections and after a possible April Budget which would allow the government to showcase voter-friendly promises on tax and spending, both leaders are going to need a serious dose of ‘rizz’ (short for ‘charisma’ and named as the word of 2024 by the Oxford English Dictionary) to make headway.

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