Rishi Sunak is 'bottling' general election and will be 'taken out of No 10 by fingernails', Labour says

The prime minister has refused to rule out an earlier-than-expected election in July, but is still remaining vague on dates.

BERLIN, GERMANY - APRIL 24: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (not seen) and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hold a joint press conference following their meeting in Berlin, Germany on April 24, 2024. (Photo by Halil Sagirkaya/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak is clinging onto power and should hold an election as soon as possible, Labour's Wes Streeting has suggested. (Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak is "bottling" a general election and should "get on with it", Labour's shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has said.

It comes after Downing Street dismissed rumours swirling around Westminster that the prime minister was poised to announce a vote on Monday for as early as July.

However, with the Tories expected to take a hammering in local elections to be held across England on Thursday, speculation of a leadership challenge has been mounting, while some have said Sunak could stall by calling an election.

Speaking to Sky News' Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips today, Streeting said: “He should get on with it. People are crying out for an opportunity to deliver their verdict on this Government and to vote for change.

“That’s why the prime minister bottled an election earlier this year. That’s why he’s bottling it now. That’s why he will have to be taken out of Downing Street by his fingernails by the end of the year.”

So far all Sunak has said is that there is likely to be a general election in the second half of the year – which could mean July. Tory figures have previously suggested it would be held in November, but the PM has said he wants to hold an election once people "feel things are improving".

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Having said that, Sunak refused to rule out a July election when questioned by Phillips. The PM said: “I’m not going to say anything more than I’ve already said, I’ve been very clear about that.”

Pressed repeatedly whether he was ruling out July, he said: “I’m not going to do that. You’re going to try and draw whatever conclusion you want from what I say. I’m going to always try and say the same thing. You should just listen to what I said, same thing I’ve said all year.”

Sunak also signalled he could wait for economic improvements to come through, in an apparent hint at a poll later in the year.

Watch: Wes Streeting 'not aware' of Tory MP being made offer to defect to Labour

“I’m determined to make sure that people feel when the election comes that the future is better, that we have turned the corner,” he said. The latest possible date Sunak could hold the election is 28 January 2025.

His interview was recorded before a shock defection by Tory MP and former health minister Dr Dan Poulter to Labour on Saturday. The working medic said he'd decided to quit in protest against a "rightward drift" within the Conservative Party and neglect of the NHS.

Streeting told Sky News this was "a reflection of the state of the modern Conservative party", adding: "I think it reflects the disaffection and disillusionment felt by millions of Conservative voters across the country who are thinking about who to vote for in the next general election."

In a pre-recorded interview, Dr Poulter told the BBC's Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme that Labour has a "track record" of improving the NHS.

He said the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had form for "delivering for patients, transforming services, getting on top of waiting lists, investing in community health care," adding that he was sure Sir Keir Starmer's Labour would be trusted by NHS staff to improve the health service.

Dr Poulter added that “patients deserve better” and it “shouldn’t be the case in a civilised health system” that a third of patients are waiting more than 60 days for urgent cancer care.

Policing minister Chris Philp rejected Dr Poulter’s assertion that the NHS is not a priority for the Tories. He told Kuenssberg: “I don’t accept what Dan is saying at all.

“We’re now spending £165 billion a year on the NHS, that’s more than ever, at any point in history,” he said, also pointing to the recruitment of more doctors and nurses.

“That isn’t the sign of a party de-prioritising the NHS. That is a sign of a political party, the Conservatives, investing heavily in our NHS because it is a priority.”

Philp also said he did not “accept” the former Tory MP’s claim that Rishi Sunak’s party no longer values public services, adding: "We’re investing, as I say, record amounts of money in both education and health. It’s why we’ve got record numbers of police officers."

Dr Dan Poulter canvassing for his seat Central Suffolk and North Ipswich
Dr Dan Poulter's defection is one of the latest challenges to Rishi Sunak's authority over his party. (Alamy)

In less than a week, the Tories are expected to lose about half of their council seats up for election, while their two most high-profile regional mayors face difficult contests.

Some analysts believe defeat for West Midlands Mayor Andy Street and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen could lead to the prime minister facing a no-confidence vote, with 52 Tory MPs needed to trigger one.

The PM told Sir Trevor that “local elections are always difficult for incumbent parties”, as he attacked Labour-run areas and “rising crime in London, rising council tax in Birmingham”.

A drubbing in the mayoral and council elections could lead some Tories to view replacing Sunak as leader as the only wry to improve the party’s dire polling and avert a similar wipeout in a general election.

Philip conceded that voters do “do feel grumpy with the government”, but predicted that the Tory Party's position will “significantly improve” closer to a general election when “it becomes more of a choice rather than a sort of referendum on do you feel grumpy with the government”.

The Tories' electoral chances are not looking good, according to YouGov's latest polling. (YouGov)

Sunak's attempts to turn this around before the end of the year will be a challenge, with the Tories on 20% on YouGov's latest voting intention tracker, compared to 45% for Labour.

Meanwhile another one of its polls puts government at just 14%, while 67% of respondents said they disapprove of the work it is doing.

Pollster Sir John Curtice has suggested the legacy left by lockdown breaking parties in Whitehall under Boris Johnson's leadership, and a short stint in No 10 by Liz Truss resulting in economic chaos, have driven too many voters away from the Tories for Sunak to feasibly recover his election chances.

“The ships have probably sailed so long ago that it’s difficult for them now to do much about it," he added.