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I n this bleak, discontented midwinter, amid the roll call of Covid deaths, lockdown bankruptcies and lost jobs, no one is thinking about the next election, are they? Of course they are, because they always do.
But why? With a majority of 80 and Brexit “done”, Boris Johnson need not face the electorate for four years. Yet 2024 now looks like ominously bad election timing. In 2023-24 Britain will hit record peacetime borrowing, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Resolution Foundation warn. Both thinktanks predict that the run-up to the next scheduled general election will be marked by a hit to earnings and pressure on the government to balance the books – as the repercussions of both Covid and Brexit come home to roost on the Treasury roof.
A Conservative chancellor who is already arguing for a quick return to fiscal probity would struggle ideologically to offer a pre-election splurge. Rishi Sunak will want to brand Labour as the risky profligates, though with borrowing predicted to be still cheap as chips, austerity will not look like a winning ticket. Hence the Tory 2024 dilemma.
That’s why some party strategists may be eyeing a window of election-winning opportunity soon. Imagine the scene: universal vaccination proves as world-beating and moon-shooting as Johnsonian hyperbole. Everyone is free at last! Yes, the virus still lurks – but let the roaring 20s begin, let joy be unconfined in drinking, dancing, pubbing and clubbing as the vaccinated over-70s start the party, splashing their heaps of unspent cash.
The idea is that euphoria at the nation’s release from house arrest will wipe away public memory of a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic: we’ll forget our outrage at the NHS and social care being brought to their knees, at the exams fiasco, at the billions squandered on failed contracts for Tory friends, at the overflowing morgues. As tills ring out, the economy will leap up briefly. Less noticed will be the half of the country counting the cost, mourning their dead, stricken by unemployment, debt, evictions, escalating poverty and young futures blighted.
As national myth-makers jubilate over Johnson’s good-time rag, party chiefs will wonder, “Why not dash for the polls before the bill arrives?” An early election allows Johnson to seek reaffirmation before his levelling-up promises and global balderdash can be seen to have failed. His excuse might be the need for a new mandate to raise taxes (which will be far too little, and will morph instead into renewed austerity). New boundary changes give the Tories 10 more seats, with a rumoured plan to raise the campaign spending limit, reaping extra funds from wealthy wannabe Tory peers. No need to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: oppositions can’t turn down the chance of an election, even though Labour isn’t yet ready for a campaign. That’s another reason for Johnson to strike by early 2022, if the glitter lasts that long.
Of course, this may not happen: the vaccine rollout may be no better than test and trace, and a prolonged lockdown caused by maladministration will be met by extreme public anger. Let’s see if the government can hit that perilously firm 15 February deadline for vaccinating all over-70s, vulnerable people, care homes, and frontline NHS and social care workers.
In addition, as an indecisive ditherer Johnson may hesitate to fire an early starting gun. Why risk three more lovely years (though another good win would hold off challengers for his chair)? And that roaring 20s moment may never happen, given the sheer weight of economic woe now predicted. The chancellor has already written in a £13bn cut for 2024-25. And the great pandemic recession will leave its scars on incomes: the median, still no higher than in 2008, will only just return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. Teachers, whose salaries are 9% below 2010 levels, are among the many facing a public-sector pay freeze.
The virus is wrenching inequality even wider, the IFS reporting the gaps already growing between graduates and non-graduates, private- and state-educated children, pensioners and the young, between ethnic groups, between employees and insecure self-employed people. All these effects will be neon-lit by 2024.
Nor will Brexit fade from memory. The effects of it are already shocking: €6bn fled the City on day one, and import/export obstacles are not “teething troubles” but fundamental to leaving the single market. No Brexit dividend beckons, only scorching clarity at how badly Johnson misled his country.
There will be no levelling up, only hardship and government dishonesty of near-Trumpian scale. All this grows ever more fertile territory for Labour – and in this volatile political era it is one reason why, just possibly, Johnson might seize an early chance to deceive the people one more time.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist