Thursday briefing: How a day of fevered general election speculation unfolded

<span>Rishi Sunak braves the weather to announce the 4 July election.</span><span>Photograph: Hollie Adams/Reuters</span>
Rishi Sunak braves the weather to announce the 4 July election.Photograph: Hollie Adams/Reuters

Good morning. Poor Oliver Dowden. There he was, gearing up to launch a cheery campaign advising people to stockpile tinned meat and invest in a wind-up radio to better endure any future “unforeseen entity upending our way of life” – and then the prime minister went ahead and announced one. Bulk buy the Spam while you can, folks: to everyone’s surprise, there’s an election coming, and it’s no time to be answering the door.

In six weeks’ time, it’ll all be over. Right now, the trickiest question for most people is why it’s even started. To answer that, today’s newsletter – put together with the help of Nimo Omer – will run you through what happened yesterday, beat by frenzied beat. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Post Office scandal | The former chief executive Paula Vennells broke down in tears as she told a public inquiry that she had been misled by her staff about the safety of the prosecutions of branch operators. Vennells claimed she was unaware that people were being wrongly prosecuted or chased for missing funds and said: “I was too trusting.”

  2. Middle East | Ireland, Spain and Norway have announced they will formally recognise a Palestinian state. The three European governments made the announcements in a coordinated move that triggered an immediate response from Israel, which is recalling its ambassadors from Dublin, Madrid and Oslo.

  3. Carer’s allowance crisis | The government’s spending watchdog is to investigate the growing scandal over carer benefits that has plunged tens of thousands of unpaid carers into debt after they unwittingly breached benefit rules. The National Audit Office said its intervention was triggered by public and political concerns over the mounting human and financial costs of overpayments.

  4. Grenfell fire | The bereaved and survivors of Grenfell Tower must wait until at least 2027 – a decade after the blaze that killed 72 people – before those suspected of being responsible for the disaster could face criminal trials, it has emerged. Families called the wait for charges for people to be held accountable “unbearable”.

  5. Art | At least 1,000 paintings that the artist Damien Hirst said were “made in 2016” were created several years later, an investigation has found. In March, the Guardian revealed that several well-known formaldehyde sculptures made by pickling animals in 2017 were dated by Hirst’s company to the 1990s.

In depth: Why does it always rain on him?


Morning: Vague rumblings

Last Friday | A notable paragraph appears in the Financial Times: “In this surreal pre-election period rumours swirl, the latest unlikely one being that Sunak could bring the uncertainty to an end and call a snap election next Wednesday, when new data is expected by some economists to show inflation falling below the Bank of England’s 2% target.”

7am | The new inflation figures are released – a smaller fall than expected, to 2.3%, but still enough for Rishi Sunak to claim later that things were “back to normal”. (That seemed to be his phrase of the day: I heard it at least five times. No doubt it’s been focus-grouped to death, but if ‘normal is good’ is the Tory selling point this time around, you do fear for them a bit.)

8.10am | The Today programme’s Emma Barnett asks Jeremy Hunt if the inflation figures are good enough to call a general election. “That’s a matter for the prime minister, not a matter for me,” he says airily. Suspicions are not yet at fever pitch, but the Westminster dorkerati scent their favourite kind of day ahead: rampant speculation about something you’ll know fairly soon anyway and gain very little from having a head start on.

8.59am | Just before the end of the programme, the BBC’s political editor, Chris Mason, comes back on the air: “I have given lots of senior folk plenty of chance to deny that over the last 12 hours or so, and they have not.”

10.29am | The Albanian foreign minister Igli Hasani tweets a welcome to David Cameron, who is visiting to discuss joint efforts on illegal migration. Union jacks and an alarmingly massive poster of Cameron’s face are on display in Tirana.


Lunchtime: growing suspicions

11.30am | Over the next few hours, there’s at least some clarity about when the mystery will be resolved. No other political reporter can get a clearer answer from Downing Street sources than Mason did about whether an election is on the cards, but cabinet ministers turn out to have been told that the afternoon’s meeting is one that they would be ill-advised to miss, without being told why.

The options rumoured are a reshuffle involving the departure of Jeremy Hunt, an announcement of a date for an autumn election, or an election for 4 July. Evidence points for the latter cited by the Guardian’s Pippa Crerar: manifesto work intensifying; a Tory party meeting this week about pre-election spending; and the prime minister’s chief of staff seen unusually wearing a suit and tie.

12.15pm | At PMQs, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, directly asks Sunak: “Does the prime minister intend to call a summer general election?” Sunak doesn’t answer the question.

12.45pm | The prime minister’s press secretary refuses to rule out a summer election. Everyone, your correspondent included, starts grousing about their holidays. One subplot: lots of reports of backbenchers and even cabinet ministers, presumably resigned to their political extinction and hoping to eke things out for as long as possible, furious with Sunak and threatening letters of no confidence. There is, a Tory source tells Newsnight’s Nick Watt, “panic in the tearoom”.

2.14pm | Jeremy Hunt cancels an appearance on ITV’s Peston at 9pm. Energy minister Andrew Bowie meanwhile backs out of a slot on BBC Radio Wales.

2.39pm | Cameron cuts his trip to Albania short to attend the cabinet meeting, notwithstanding the giant poster of his face in Tirana. Somewhat surprisingly, a key source for this news turns out to be a Roman Catholic nun. Grant Shapps also delays a flight to a Nato meeting in Lithuania. No holy intervention on this one.


Afternoon: indisputable confirmation

4.10pm | As the cabinet meeting begins and speculation about an election solidifies into a racing certainty, Pippa Crerar and Rowena Mason are first to stand up the story, reporting that senior sources have confirmed a 4 July election. Sunak is expected to appear shortly after 5.

Some are still baffled at Sunak calling an election when he is 20 points behind in the polls, and there is no doubt his decision is a huge gamble. But there is a visible rationale.

Jessica Elgot lays out the case here: “A summer election means Sunak has concluded that time is against him and the worst is yet to come.” She points to the growing risk of a leadership challenge, and the hope that improving inflation figures plus limited positive headlines on immigration can boost the party in the polls.

Another reason to wait would have been to make tax cuts in the autumn – but there now appears to be no room for manoeuvre. And there may also be a hope that flights to Rwanda will take off before the election – without time for evidence on whether they have any impact on small boats crossing the Channel. A Downing Street source tells the Times of Sunak’s worries “that once we got past the summer, everything would be dominated by when the election was going to be called and it would look like he was clinging on”.

4.15pm There are, reportedly, a couple of expressions of concern in the cabinet: Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris says that he would not have called an election now, but is fully behind it, while Esther McVey says Sunak would have been better to wait until voters feel that the economy is improving. But most ministers back Sunak, and bang on the cabinet table in approval. The FT reports Michael Gove saying: “Who dares wins. You dared — and you will win.” As the FT also notes, the odds on that at Ladbrokes were 25-1.

5pm | Stalwart Westminster protester Steve Bray seriously tests everyone’s patience with an excruciatingly tinny rendition of TORIES OUT from the gates of Downing Street. Then the lectern is set up outside No 10. No end of people appear to believe they are the first to note that it doesn’t have a prime ministerial crest on it, which means that it’s a political statement, which means an election, although I suppose it could also be an offer of discounted early bird tickets for party conference.

5.13pm | Sunak announces an election on 4 July, keeping his shoulders dry for at least 15 seconds of his speech. Bray redeems himself for all eternity by blaring out the certified 1997 Blair banger Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream before his speakers finally blow in the rain. You might say things can only get wetter!!! Here is a list of everyone who made that joke. Rowena Mason explains the mechanics of how the election will work here.

5.43pm | Keir Starmer appears, indoors and without musical accompaniment, to give Labour’s response, promising to “stop the chaos” and provide “a politics that treads more lightly on all our lives”. He uses the word “change” eight times.


Evening: inevitable recriminations

7.20pm | Nigel Farage says on GB News that he will decide tomorrow whether to run for Reform UK: “I’ll think about it overnight, no commitment from me either way at the moment”. If he does so, he is likely to give the rightwing party a significant boost in the polls – very bad news for the Tories.

8.10pm | At a campaign event in east London, Sunak makes an underdog pitch, saying that Labour want people to think “this election is over before it’s even begun”, but that “the British people are going to show Labour that they don’t take too kindly to being taken for granted”. On the live blog, Andrew Sparrow writes that this is “not a message that a party would use if it were in a strong position. But sometimes voters punish hubris, and there may be some who are susceptible to the message that Labour is taking them for granted.”

9.44pm | Christopher Hope, the GB News political editor with impeccable contacts on the Tory right, reports that “some furious Conservative MPs are tonight working on a plot to CALL OFF the general election by replacing Rishi Sunak as leader before Parliament is dissolved next Thursday”. This seems pretty unlikely to happen. On the other hand, I would have said the same thing about a July election 24 hours ago. And you have to say: it’s been that sort of decade.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Though India is known for its soaring temperatures, Bengaluru, the capital of the southern Indian state of Karnataka, has had a fairly temperate climate. This has changed dramatically in recent years, with temperatures reaching 34C in February. Preksha Sharma and Janet Orlene report on how the harsher weather is taking a toll on the people. Nimo

  • The new report by the government’s “independent adviser in political violence” is a “horrifying restriction on the right to protest”, writes George Monbiot – and suggests that the true extremists may not be those found on demonstrations. Archie

  • After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the calls to downsize, or even eradicate, policing became deafening. In Atlanta, Georgia, local government responded by creating Cop City – a $90m police training complex – and waving in a series of draconian laws to criminalise protesters. For New York magazine (£), Zak Cheney-Rice’s terrifying report lays out how these new laws could be used against protesters today. Nimo

  • In this superb dispatch from Kharkiv, Shaun Walker writes about the attempt to maintain some kind of ordinary life while under constant Russian attack. “It’s a huge psychological support if you can do things that remind you of normality,” psychologist Nataliya Kramar tells him. “Walk in the park, go shopping, have a haircut. It gives that sense of continuity that is so important.” Archie

  • Nearly 74% of Danes believe “most people can be trusted”, higher than any other country. Zoe Williams explores why living in a society where strangers generally have trust in each other can be a transformative thing. Nimo


Football | Ademola Lookman scored a brilliant hat-trick to secure Atalanta’s first European trophy (above) as they won 3-0 and inflicted Bayer Leverkusen’s first defeat of the season in any competition.

Football | Bayern Munich are close to ending their protracted search for a new manager with the club set to give the job to Burnley’s Vincent Kompany. Bayern have encountered frustration in their hunt for a replacement for Thomas Tuchel, who departed after ending the season without winning a trophy.

Paris 2024 | The acting sports minister of Ukraine, Matviy Bidnyi, has told his country’s athletes to keep a “cold head” and pay no attention to any provocation from their Russian counterparts at the Olympic Games this summer. Bidnyi told the Guardian that recommendations have been drawn up to help the Ukraine team to avoid controversy.

The front pages

There’s a full round-up of today’s election announcement front pages available here. They all feature a picture of the prime minister looking damp outside No 10. “Sunak’s big gamble” says the Guardian’s banner front-page headline. “Judgement day: 4 July snap election for UK” is how the i responds to the date being set. “Sunak bets the house” – that’s the Times, while the Daily Telegraph says “Sunak gambles on snap poll” and adds a second headline: “Things can only get wetter”. “Drown & out” – Rishi Sunak’s departing back is shown on the front of the Daily Mirror. The Daily Mail declares that “Now is the moment for Britain to choose its future”, and the Daily Express goes with “PM: I am fighting for our nation’s future”. “Election: July 4” says the Metro. “Sunak bets on July 4 election” – that’s the Financial Times.

Today in Focus

Rishi Sunak’s big election gamble

The prime minister has ended months of speculation by calling an election for 4 July. But why so soon? Jonathan Freedland reports

Cartoon of the day | Ella Baron

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

The Borrowdale rainforest is now a national nature reserve, a designation that will protect the rare habitat for future generations. The Lake District rainforest is part of the 1% of land in England that is considered “mysterious and untouched”, as many of the habitats like it have almost entirely disappeared due to natural climate change during prehistoric times and human deforestation in the 1800s.

The announcement comes as part of King Charles’s Series of National Nature Reserves, in which five will be created each year for the next five years. The scheme will help conserve the native rainforest, linking it up with other nearby habitats and reducing the risk of flooding to homes and farms.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.