Rishi Sunak surprised everyone – including many in his own party – by calling an election which will most likely end his time in office

Things can only get wetter: Rishi Sunak’s Downing Street announcement

There have, Heinz-style, been 57 varieties of prime minister since the post was established with Sir Robert Walpole in 1721. He, in fact, holds the record for the longest incumbency, achieving almost 21 years in office before he resigned.

Of recent prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher comes in at No 7, clocking up 11 years 208 days. Tony Blair is not far behind at No 9, with 10 years 56 days.

The bewildering succession of PMs of late has seen occupants of 10 Downing Street merely waft in and out in relative terms. Bottom of the list at No 57, unsurprisingly, is the disastrous Liz Truss who lasted a mere 49 days and whose budget blew £74bn, yes billion, of taxpayers’ money, or around £1.5 billion per day in office. Mind you, that figure comes from the Daily Express which many regard as the world’s worst newspaper, so it might not be entirely reliable.

No 56, incidentally, is George Canning who managed just 119 days but at least has the excuse that he died in office.

And what of Rishi Sunak? Well he sits at No 44 with 1 year 216 days, though I confess it seems longer. Many thought he would hang on until he passed the two-year mark which, barring a miracle on July 4, he will now not reach. In fact, he will not even catch another calamitous Tory prime minister at No 43, Anthony Eden of Suez fame – or infamy.

So why did he go early, what is likely to happen on 4 July, and what does this mean for transport?

On the first question, theories abound as to why the PM called the election now rather than waiting for the autumn as nearly everyone expected. One is that he concluded matters could only get worse between now and October, with small boats plying their crossing over the summer, the IMF publicly warning against any further cuts to tax or national insurance, and no real progress on dealing with the multiplicity of problems within the NHS.

Another is that he wanted to go to the country before the Reform Party could get properly organised and eat further into the Tory vote, and to try to wrong-foot Labour.
A third is that he wanted to head off any threat to his position from within Tory ranks after a pretty dismal set of local election results where the Conservatives came third behind the Lib Dems in both seats and control of councils.

Whatever the reason, he has managed to bewilder and infuriate some of his own MPs who had been told they were safe to book holidays, and even more who regard an early election simply as a way of unnecessarily bringing forward what they suspect may be the executioner’s axe.

Nor was the first week of the campaign anything other a disaster for him and his party.

  • He went to the palace to secure a dissolution of parliament without consulting his cabinet first.
  • His rain-sodden appearance in Downing Street led to headlines about drowning not waving, and Drowning Street. Do they not have umbrellas in Number 10?
  • On his visit to Derbyshire, the two “members of the public” in hi-vis jackets who asked him questions were exposed as Tory councillors.
  • He visited Northern Ireland (why? The Tories are not contesting any seats there) and headed straight for the Titanic Quarter leading a journalist to ask him the obvious question as to whether he was the captain of a sinking ship.
  • He posed for a quick photo-op on a plane, standing next to an EXIT sign.
  • He announced he wanted to bring back National Service, something Tory MPs had been encouraged to deny just days earlier, and which is likely only to galvanise the 18-24 vote which generally has a poor turn-out but which is about 85% anti-Tory.

As to what will happen, we need only look at the polls which would have to be astronomically wrong if the Tories are to win again. Every single poll puts Labour way ahead, between 12 and 22%. Moreover, it is clear that, as in 1997, the electorate is taking an ABC approach – Anyone But Conservatives. The willingness to vote in each area for whoever is best placed to remove the Tories has taken root and is growing vigorously.

As in recent by-elections, we will see both Labour and the Lib Dems winning seats with huge swings to them, while scoring under 5% and losing deposits in others. Whereas Boris Johnson managed to win the so-called red wall in the north while retaining the blue wall in the south, this time around the former looks like reverting to Labour and the latter turning to the Lib Dems.

For instance, an opinion poll in Godalming and Ash, the seat being contested by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, puts the Lib Dems on 35% and the Tories on just 29%, down from 53% last time. It is no wonder that quite a few Conservative MPs have decided to stand down, some before they are pushed but others like the respected rail minister Huw Merriman because the idea of spending five years in a much diminished Tory party facing a potentially huge Labour majority is far from appealing.

The Electoral Calculus currently predicts Labour to win 479 seats, the Tories 92 and the Lib Dems 44. One prediction even has the Lib Dems overtaking the Tories to become the second largest party, as they achieved in May’s local elections, and so the official opposition. Can it really be that bad for the Tories?

Personally I would not rule out the possibility of a hung parliament, though a Labour majority is clearly the bookies’ favourite.

So what does all this mean for transport?

Barring a significant unforeseen event like a plane crash, transport is hardly likely to make it onto the radar between now and July 4

In the short term, very little. Elections can be unpredictable – who would have thought that the most interesting event of the 2001 election would be then deputy prime minister and transport secretary John Prescott throwing a punch at a member of the public – but barring a significant unforeseen event like a plane crash, transport is hardly likely to make it onto the radar between now and July 4.

Labour is fighting the election on the powerful case for “change” but in terms of rail, steady as she goes seems more applicable, as I set out in my last column for Passenger Transport (PT312). In terms of the bus, yes there should be change as the metro mayors embrace the idea of running buses again. By the end of the next parliament, 74% of all bus journeys in England could be on publicly-controlled routes.

Labour needs to change the pricing model for transport, end the absurd freeze on fuel duty which is not only leading transport up the wrong street but costing the Treasury billions in lost revenue, and then use that money to hold down, even cut train and bus fares. Sadly, I cannot imagine Labour leader Keir Starmer or shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves being willing to countenance such a necessary move. It is a depressing reflection on how far we have travelled – backwards – to remember that the fuel duty escalator was introduced by a Tory chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, to encourage modal shift away from private cars.

Labour also needs to find a way to lift councils off the floor if they are to play a meaningful role in driving change in transport. Again, there is no evidence that this is on the agenda of the Labour high command.

In terms of infrastructure spend, again Labour seems content to go along with plans inherited from the Tories

In terms of infrastructure spend, again Labour seems content to go along with plans inherited from the Tories. They should have, and still could, announce they intend,
if they win the election, to look again at HS2 north of Birmingham, which would at least protect the line. A high-speed stump from Birmingham to Old Oak Common is frankly the worst of all worlds.

Rachel Reeves says she wants to rely on private finance to grow the economy. I hope this does not presage a return to the sorts of rip-off PFI schemes under Blair and Brown that, like loan sharks, gave you the money and demanded exorbitant interest.

But given her enthusiasm for private capital, Reeves should work with Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Richard Parker, the new mayor of the West Midlands, to give oxygen to the replacement HS2 scheme to link the two great cities that was already being worked up before the mayoral elections.

I predict Labour is going to get in a mess over the West Coast Main Line

I predict Labour is going to get in a mess over the West Coast Main Line. As everyone in the rail industry, and very few in the public know, the case for HS2 rests on capacity needs, not speed, and the deeply regressive cancellation of the section north of Birmingham puts huge pressure on the existing line.

Yet Labour is, like the Tories, correctly enthusiastic about open access. So are they going to support Virgin’s application to run open access trains hourly up the main line to Preston, Liverpool and Glasgow? Or Lumo’s plans for a restoration of the London-Rochdale service? And what about their commitment to increase freight usage,
some of which inevitably will want to use the West Coast Main Line? As my mum used to say, a quart won’t go into a pint pot.

Politically after the election, the main challenge to Labour will come not from the rump of Tory MPs who will be pre-occupied with soul-searching and working out what they stand for

Politically after the election, the main challenge to Labour will come not from the rump of Tory MPs who will be pre-occupied with soul-searching and working out what they stand for, nor even from a likely much increased Lib Dem contingent (outwith a hung parliament), but from the metro mayors, 9 out of 10 of whom are Labour.
The mayors are already flexing their muscles, and relishing Starmer’s plans to give them more say over their local rail network, and the opportunity to “take back control” of their local bus services.

Writing in the i newspaper this week, Tracy Brabin, the mayor of West Yorkshire, fired a shot across Starmer’s bows, warning that the mayors are ready to “act as a collective voice to counter the Westminster and Whitehall-dominated discussion on the action needed to kick-start our national economy”. Meanwhile, the paper quotes a ‘Labour insider’ as noting there is already “distrust” between the party’s HQ and some of the mayors. We are going to hear more of this.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!