Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Now that he’s reshuffled his Cabinet, Rishi Sunak’s last big strategic decision is the date of the next general election. Assuming he resists the insane calls for a snap election, the broad choice is between Spring 2024 and Autumn 2024.
Given the dire state of the polls, playing for time is the most logical approach. So Autumn it is then.
Except there’s a niggling problem with that, one with diplomatic implications that David Cameron, our new Foreign Secretary, might give some thought to.
The issue is this: an Autumn election campaign in Britain would overlap with the presidential election campaign in America.
This doesn’t happen very often. In fact, the last time was 1964 when Sir Alec Douglas-Home lost narrowly to Harold Wilson on the 15 October and Lyndon B Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater on the 3 November.
Next year, election day in America is on the 5th November, with the big debates and campaign rallies taking place in September and October. So, unless Sunak decides to copy Boris Johnson and go for an early December election (still technically Autumn), then the UK and US campaigns will clash.
Of course, there’s no rule against it – but it matters, for a number of reasons. For a start, at time when we should be fully-focused on Britain, we’ll be distracted by events across the pond.
There’s a quote, wrongly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, that “every man has two countries — his own and France”. Unfortunately, this is out-of-date: these days, every man’s other country is the USA. Given the influence of American culture on the western mind and the global relevance of American foreign policy, it’s impossible not to view American politics as our business too.
Modern technology accentuates this effect. Back in 1964, our access to the American political process was filtered through the BBC and Fleet Street. These days we can mainline the discourse, and the discord, straight from the source.
As a result, American events feed into British political narratives with more immediacy than they used to. A case in point was the 2016 coincidence of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, two events that became inextricably linked in the conventional wisdom despite their obvious differences.
Therefore, as much as some of us may wish to, there is no ignoring the Orange Man. The very possibility of an extraordinary comeback for the most controversial US president of our time is likely to overshadow our own general election. Sunak versus Sir Keir Starmer hardly competes with the drama of a Trump-Biden rematch.
America’s allies would be well-advised not to get enter into America’s private beef. However, staying out of it may prove tricky if Trump takes a confrontational stance on non-domestic issues like Ukraine, US commitments to NATO, and the Middle East.
British party leaders could find themselves in an especially awkward position. If they’re on the campaign trail and facing constant questioning from the press, then there’s a risk that a statement on US-UK relations could be interpreted as interference in the American campaign.
Sunak, I’m sure, will exercise caution. As for Starmer, he’ll be conscious that it might soon be him dealing with a re-elected Trump. However, that leaves a variety of other UK politicians who won’t be so diplomatic; imagine a leaders’ debate in which Sunak and Starmer look on uncomfortably while the minor party leaders grandstand shamelessly.
Finally, I come to a nightmare scenario. It doesn’t concern the US campaign so much as its result. That’s because there’s the very real prospect of a disputed outcome – one which could tear America apart.
The dust is still settling what happened in 2020, when Team Trump cried foul over some very close results in states like Arizona and Georgia. It was a nasty moment for American democracy, but it could have been worse. For all the belly-aching over a “stolen election”, the fact was that Biden had beaten Trump in the popular vote by a margin of seven million votes.
For most Republican voters, there just wasn’t the appetite to turn the conspiracy theories into a casus belli. Furthermore, not even the closest state results were close enough to leave the national outcome in genuine doubt.
However, 2024 could be very different. For a start, the attempt to stop Trump’s comeback by legal means appears to have failed. Not only is he set to win the Republican nomination, the polls also have him in a stronger position against the Democrats than he was at the same point in the previous election cycle.
Furthermore, there seems to be no constitutional barrier to a US President leading his nation from a prison cell (should he end up in one).
So, unless the polls shift, there’ll be no overwhelming Democrat advantage in the popular vote – indeed the Republicans could win it for the first time since 2024.
As for state-by-state polling, it looks like Arizona and Georgia will return to the Republican column. In which case, the entire outcome hinges on the closely-fault battles for Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The maths of the electoral college are such that if Trump wins just one of these, then he’s back in the White House.
Though these are sometimes described as “toss-up states”, they’re normally won by a margin of thousands or tens-of-thousands of votes. But, plausibly, it could be mere hundreds. And with three of these finely-balanced contests there are three chances for a knife-edge result.
If that happens then we could see a repeat of the hanging chads election of 2000. The technical and legal details would be different to what happened back then in Florida, but with the status of each and every vote subject to challenge, the final declaration could be delayed for weeks, therefore also leaving the national result in limbo.
The added danger in 2024 is that, after two decades of political polarisation, the arguments could spill out from the courtrooms and onto the streets. Though predictions of a second American Civil War are overblown, we could see a severe breakdown in law-and-order and a crisis of democratic legitimacy.
Could America’s allies just stand-by in the face of such paralysis? Not with so much at stake in the world. With the US government in a state of disorder, somebody somewhere in the Western alliance would have to exercise leadership. For the United Kingdom, it would be the worst possible time to be embroiled in an election of our own.
Of course, as I say, this is the nightmare scenario, not a firm prediction. And yet it is disturbingly plausible. At the very least, America is heading for one of the nastiest and most divisive elections in its modern history.
None of this means that we mustn’t hold a concurrent election of our own, but we may come to wish that we hadn’t.