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Friday, July 19, 2024

Rishi Sunak Blindsided His Own Finance Minister With Sudden UK Poll Call

Some ministers backed the election decision, with Communities Secretary Michael Gove praising the move in Cabinet, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision to stake the Conservative Party’s future on a rare summer election was so secret that even his chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, appeared surprised by the plan.

Hunt’s allies were unaware enough of the snap election called by Sunak on Wednesday that some feared a rumored big announcement meant that the chancellor was about to be replaced in a reshuffle, according to people familiar with thinking in the Treasury. As the prime minister prepared to reveal his decision in a news conference outside 10 Downing St., Hunt was busy canceling media appearances to speak about the morning’s inflation data and shortening a trip to a meeting of Group of Seven finance ministers on Thursday in Italy.

Some ministers backed the election decision, with Communities Secretary Michael Gove praising the move in Cabinet, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But disappointment was a common sentiment among Tory MPs, including some ministers, as they absorbed the implications of a vote that could cost scores of them seats, with Hunt seen as among the most vulnerable Cabinet members.

Many had long ago accepted Sunak’s calls to “stick to the plan,” which they interpreted as waiting for the economic backdrop to improve as forecast later in the year. That was reliant on a series of economic events to show Britain had turned the corner.

Hunt had as recently as last week suggested he might again reduce payroll taxes in an autumn fiscal statement, something that will now be left to the next government. Foreign Secretary David Cameron, a former prime minister now in the House of Lords, on May 12 endorsed plans to wait until later in the year for an election.

The lack of support of a summer vote raised questions about how motivated the party will be to contest Labour leader Keir Starmer’s bid to become prime minister. One sitting government minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the July 4 date was a terrible idea given the Conservatives have been polling 20 points behind the main opposition Labour Party. A second minister said the timing suggested Sunak had given up and didn’t want to be prime minister any longer.

For months, Sunak aides had declined to say when exactly the election would be held, frustrating bankbench Tory MPs who complained he was using the threat to keep them from joining efforts to replace him as leader. Conservative rebels had argued that the party was facing oblivion squeezed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the left and the Reform UK party founded by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage on the right.

Some backbench Tory MPs took to social media to criticize the election timing, with Tracey Crouch and Dehenna Davison writing on X that they were disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to do things they’d been hoping to achieve in Parliament. Indeed, the sudden election likely means some key pieces of legislation he promised in the Conservative Party Conference and King’s Speech last year will be left undone, including a progressive ban on smoking.

Instead, Sunak appears to have calculated that there was more advantage in a vote that may coincide with flights deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, an issue he wants to be at the center of the campaign. Sunak has indicated that he hopes the first flights would leave by early July, giving him a talking point to counter a key driver of votes to Reform.

Anger within Tory ranks wasn’t just directed at the timing of the election: it was also leveled at Sunak’s mode of announcement, delivered while soaking in the rain outside Downing Street and almost drowned out by music from a protester. Several Tory politicians, including a cabinet minister, told Bloomberg privately that he should have had an umbrella or given his statement inside.

Addressing a room of 100 or so Conservative members of Parliament and campaigners late Wednesday in East London, Home Secretary James Cleverly argued that Sunak was the right person to lead them into the election. “We need a leader at the head of the government who is willing to make the right choices,” Cleverly said, echoing Sunak’s claims that the country would be less safe under a Labour government.

Cleverly referred to Sunak’s own tenure as chancellor, when subsidies to help soften the economic blow of Covid-19 propelled his popularity upward. “Inflation is now back where it should be,” Cleverly said, adding that was “because of choices made when Rishi Sunak was chancellor and choices he made when he was prime minister.”

One MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was a good move and they were happy. Another said it was either a master stroke of political genius or incredibly selfish. They they weren’t sure which.

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