Wild rumours, cancelled trips and silence from No 10 – how election fever gripped Westminster

Rishi Sunak attends a Conservative campaign event after announcing the general election
Rishi Sunak attends a Conservative campaign event after announcing the general election - HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images

The morning sun had barely crept above the black gates of Downing Street when a chipper Rishi Sunak descended the stairs of No 10 to kick off the biggest day of his premiership.

A natural lark, the Prime Minister was up and about even earlier than usual as he planned a blitz of announcements to capitalise on the announcement of a sharp fall in inflation.

He started his day by filming a video in which, striking a deliberately non-triumphalist tone, he told voters their “collective work and sacrifice” meant there were “brighter days ahead”. Addressing the camera in a bright Tory blue tie, Mr Sunak acknowledged that “there is more work to do” and that “people are only just starting to feel the benefits” to their wallets.

Yet the return of inflation to 2.3 per cent – just above the Bank of England’s target rate of 2 per cent – was the latest in a series of good news announcements to feed a positive economic narrative.

It was the trigger point, long in the planning, for the Prime Minister to deliver his boldest gambit yet and finally unveil the date for the next general election.

Standing on the steps outside No 10 he stunned his own Cabinet and MPs when, with his party 20 points behind in the polls, he announced a July 4 polling day.

The decision was delivered in chaotic fashion, with even the weather seeming to conspire against the Prime Minister at the very outset of his election campaign. As he strode through the black door of No 10 and out to the wooden lectern the persistent London rain, which had temporarily cleared, returned with a vengeance.

Dark wet marks began to spread across the shoulders and arms of Mr Sunak’s suit as he reeled off his achievements in office and harked back to the furlough scheme implemented during the pandemic.

A rain-soaked Rishi Sunak makes the announcement outside No 10
A rain-soaked Rishi Sunak makes the announcement outside No 10 - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu via Getty Images

Things then got much worse, as an anti-Brexit protester set up a speaker next to the Downing Street gates blasting out the New Labour anthem, “Things Can Only Get Better”.

As the quietly spoken Prime Minister struggled to be heard above the din, social media users joked that the Tory election slogan should be “things can only get wetter”.

Anti-Conservative protesters dampened Rishi Sunak's announcement almost as much as the drizzle
Anti-Conservative protesters dampened Rishi Sunak's announcement almost as much as the drizzle

A chaotic day of speculation

The announcement, when it eventually arrived at 5.15pm, came towards the end of a chaotic day on which Downing Street had allowed a political vacuum to form. Election rumours, which began to circulate wildly on social media on Tuesday night ahead of the inflation figures, reached fever pitch on Wednesday as No 10 went into bunker mode.

Mr Sunak and his team spent Tuesday evening preparing for Prime Minister’s Questions, which would have included wargaming over how to respond to questions about the timing of the election.

From the early morning, Mr Sunak’s team maintained a stony silence and refused to take calls from journalists, leaving the speculation around a summer date to run wild. That remained the case even after Chris Mason, the BBC’s political editor, announced on the radio shortly before 10am that officials were not denying the rumours.

At the same time speculation began that, rather than a snap election, the Prime Minister was in fact set to unveil a Cabinet reshuffle and sack Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor.

Shortly before midday, it emerged that ministers had been summoned to a 4pm Cabinet meeting, with the significance of the gathering underlined by instructions from No 10 that attendance was compulsory. Mr Sunak was inevitably confronted with the rumours when he appeared at Prime Minister’s Questions two hours later, and once again refused to knock them down despite talk of an election announcement reaching fever pitch.

Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader in Westminster, said: “The public deserve a clear answer. Does the Prime Minister intend to call a summer general election or is he feart?”

A laughing Mr Sunak replied: “As I have said repeatedly to him – spoiler alert – there is going to be a general election in the second half of this year.”

At a briefing with journalists afterwards, his spokesman managed to fuel both the speculation about a general election and a Cabinet reshuffle all at once. While failing to dampen talk of a snap poll, he also cast doubt on Mr Hunt’s position by refusing to repeat previous assurances that the Chancellor’s job was safe.

Ministers cancel trips and cut plans short to attend meeting

At about the same time it emerged that Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, had delayed a trip to Eastern Europe so that he could attend the Cabinet meeting. When it subsequently emerged that Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary, was also returning early from Albania, it was clear a serious announcement was due.

A further curveball was thrown into the mix when ITV announced at 2.14pm that Mr Hunt had pulled out of a planned evening appearance on the channel’s Peston politics show. Tory special advisers were also called to an afternoon meeting where Liam Booth-Smith, the leather jacket loving No 10 chief of staff, surprised them by wearing a suit and tie.

Such was the veil of secrecy around the election decision that senior members of the Cabinet only found out about it once seated for their 4pm meeting. One top minister who was abroad on a trip and unable to dial into the gathering was forced to resort to monitoring breaking news updates for what was going on.

Blower Cartoon
Rishi Sunak has started the race to the general election as he goes up against Labour's Sir Keir Starmer

The announcement eventually came after months of Mr Sunak failing to dampen speculation of a summer election by repeatedly refusing to rule one out in public.

In private, though, No 10 is said to have told MPs and ministers that they were safe to book their summer breaks because an autumn contest was on the cards. The Prime Minister himself hinted heavily at a November date just a week ago, telling ITV’s Loose Women that the timing would be “good for your holidays”.

But behind the scenes there were talks between Mr Sunak, his aides and Tory strategists over the best moment to seize political momentum and catch Labour off guard. The announcement had some success on the latter with Sir Keir Starmer also enduring a gaffe-prone campaign launch, having to pull a social media video blighted by a typo.

Oliver Dowden, the Deputy Prime Minister, was said to have played a key role in the internal discussions over whether to take the plunge on a summer election.

In the end, the combination of better economic news, the end up speculation about his leadership and a perception Labour is vulnerable on policy swayed Mr Sunak. The coming six weeks will show whether he was right to take the biggest of gambles.