It is “the worst kept secret in parliament” that the UK is heading for a May general election, according to a Labour frontbencher.
Emily Thornberry told Sky News that the date of the spring budget “seems to confirm” what many MPs suspect – that the prime minister could go to the polls early.
The next general election is expected in 2024, but until recently it was widely believed it would be held in the autumn to give the prime minister as much time as possible to convince voters the economy is improving and better days are ahead.
However, after Jeremy Hunt announced the government would hold an earlier than anticipated budget, with a date set for 6 March, it fuelled growing speculation that the election could be in the spring instead.
Asked if the budget date signals an early election, Ms Thornberry said: “Yeah, it’s the worst kept secret in parliament that we are likely to be heading for a May election and this budget date seems to confirm that.”
She said Labour – which is seeking to return to power after 13 years out of government – was ready for a spring election, adding: “The whole country’s response is bring it on, the country is desperate for a general election.”
The budget date was confirmed after reports the Conservatives could slash inheritance tax (IHT) and offer more help for first-time buyers as a pre-election giveaway to boost their chances of victory and create policy dividing lines with Labour.
Ms Thornberry would not be drawn on whether her party would back the measures the Tories are said to be mulling over, saying those briefings are designed to “set a trap for Labour”.
The shadow attorney general said: “There was a time governments governed and made the right decisions for the sake of the country, and their first response was not what’s best for the Tory party, what red meat can we give our backbenchers to stop them rebelling, what can we do to embarrass the Labour Party.
“It’s about time we had a government that was prepared to govern.”
Will there be a spring election?
Whatever the date of the next election, the spring budget will be one of the final chances for Mr Hunt to make changes to tax and spending policy this side of parliament – with an election required by January 2025 at the latest.
He is under pressure from Tory MPs to cut taxes, with the tax burden still at a record high despite him slashing national insurance in the autumn budget.
While Labour is of the view the election will be held in May, experts have told Sky News the Tories could simply be trying to keep the Opposition on their toes – and an autumn election is more likely.
Some pollsters believe Mr Sunak will want as much time as possible to turn around his party’s 20-point deficit in the polls and deliver on his five key pledges, including growing the economy and stopping the boats.
However the spring budget has excited political pundits because while it is normally held in March, the date is usually in the latter half of the month.
The earlier budget date leaves open the possibility of the general election taking place on the same day as local elections on 2 May.
Polling day for a general election takes place 25 working days after parliament has been dissolved, so if the election is to be held on 2 May, Rishi Sunak would have to announce parliament is being dissolved by 26 March.