In a bold move, on the afternoon of Wednesday 22 May 2024 the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, walked through the front door of Number 10 into Downing Street in the middle of a summer downpour to announce that he had asked the King to dissolve Parliament and that an election for a new one would be held in six weeks time.

Against a backdrop of shouting and blaring music from beyond the Downing Street gates, Sunak calmly explained what he had done so far as Chancellor and Prime Minister and what he hoped, if re-elected, he would do in the years ahead. Soaked to the skin he turned on his heel and went back inside – one hopes for a hot drink and some dry clothes.

Only a few hours earlier at Prime Minister’s Questions, he had repeated his by now familiar mantra when challenged about the timing of the looming general election that it would take place sometime in the second half of the year. Few gave his answer a second thought. This despite the fact that serious rumours had started to circulate about the possibility of a calling of an election around tea time of the previous day.

Political groupthink is a very powerful force at Westminster. There are all sorts of issues and positions that seem settled and immovable right up to the moment they are shifted then everyone leaps on board and claims it was obvious really all along.

So the professional pundits and political observers were wrong-footed. They will not easily forgive the Prime Minister for making them look foolish. In the age of mass social media communication, that matters much less than it once might have done.

There are two Westminster groups however that were perfectly on point about a July election. For anyone listening closely to Labour, it was clear that they had identified early July as a distinct possibility for an election and were prepared for such an eventuality. The other group was the Conservative Campaign Headquarters. For anyone listening carefully to their senior figures, they too were gearing up for a July contest. In neither case was this just routine preparation.

The glory of a general election is that we, the electorate, have the chance to change our minds about what we want and we are not bound to be consistent from one election to another. It is up to the politicians to make their case and not take the electorate for granted. It is our privilege and responsibility to chose.

Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister in the most arduous of circumstances. He has grappled valiantly in the nineteen months he has held the Premiership with a very difficult inheritance and an abundance of predecessors who were, apart from David Cameron, not disposed to be either helpful or supportive. The Conservative party in the country understands and sympathises with the Prime Minister perhaps in a way the Parliamentary party, which in this Parliament alone has worked its way through no less than three Prime Ministers, has frequently failed to do.

In truth, an autumn election was never an attractive option. September’s party conferences held the prospect of a successful confident Labour week contrasting with a fractious week of Conservative angsting and arguing. That would have been no basis to launch a campaign. The argument that something might turn up or Keir Starmer would somehow stumble or whatever straw might be clutched was always an argument for delay and dither over realism and reality. The country was obviously becoming increasingly impatient with all the speculation.

So Sunak has grasped the nettle. That shows character and courage. He goes to the country as a relatively fresh Prime Ministerial face yet with experience of holding two of the great offices of state: Prime Minister and Chancellor. He is able to say: “I have made a start but I need your support to push on with what needs to be done”. Unlike James Callaghan, Gordon Brown and, in 1997, John Major, Rishi Sunak has rightly opted not to drag the country up to the electoral wire. This provides an insight into his priorities: it shows he has decided to put his country first. Country first is the right call for any Prime Minister.

In Robert Harris’s great series on the legendary political philosopher and politician, Cicero, he has the great statesman saying something along the lines of, in politics, when you find yourself in a corner, start a fight. You may not know where you will end up but you need to make things move. Twenty points behind Rishi Sunak is certainly in a corner. Instead of waiting, and being ground down, and pushed around, and being at the beck and call of events the Prime Minister has opted to start a fight. This too shows something of the character of the person asking for our support.

There is one other thing to bear in mind. Were Sunak to lose but only by a relatively slim margin, there is every reason to think he will opt to stay on and fight it out through the next Parliament and the following general election. That, after all, was the normal practice of British political leaders until quite recent times. This new habit of political leaders zooming up the ladder, into office, then pushing off as soon as they lose is as unwelcome as it is unhelpful to the fostering of talent, experience and consistency. So Sunak may well, rightly, have his eye not just on this general election, but the one after that too. One way or another, Rishi Sunak may well be just getting into his stride and is right to have called this election when he did.

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