'Overshadowed by speculation' - Analysis of Rishi Sunak's visit to the West Country

Rishi Sunak with ITV West Country's Bob Cruwys and Alex Lovell.

It’s no coincidence that Rishi Sunak has visited the South West a number of times already this year.

Political polling indicates he faces an electoral wipeout - even in places across the West Country that have once been considered safe Tory territory.

On Thursday 14 March he arrived at Kingsholm Stadium, the home of Gloucester Rugby, flanked by the constituency’s MP Richard Graham. It has been Tory since 2010 but is a key Labour target at the next election.

The PM then went on a mini-tour to nearby constituencies that also happen to be on the opposition’s hit-list. He went to Rolls Royce in Filton, SGS Berkeley Green in Stroud, and Cheltenham Hospital.

But what was meant to be a day of campaigning, was overshadowed by speculation about when the PM will call a general election.

Speaking to the media at Kingsholm Stadium, Mr Sunak said “nothing has changed” since he last said his “working assumption” was that an election would be in the second half of 2024.

The Prime Minister took a firmer line in a bid to control expectations when speaking to ITV West Country.

Hours later, on ITV West Country, he took a harder line in a bid to kill the swirling rumours.

“We have local elections… I am squarely focused on those because they are important, and there’s not going to be a general election on that day,” he told Alex Lovell and Bob Cruwys.

He added: “The Labour Party are trying to whip up this idea that I’m about to call a general election. They want to avoid questions about how they’re going to pay for all their spending commitments.”

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats responded immediately, accusing the PM of “squatting in Downing Street” (Labour) and “running scared” of a May election (Liberal Democrats).

Mr Sunak’s message on Thursday, beyond general election speculation, was that his Party is “united” and progress is being made after a “difficult couple of years”.

“My pitch”, he told ITV West Country, “is to stick with the plan”.

But while he might have quashed rumours that he could call a general election to coincide with locals on 2 May, that doesn’t mean the PM has ruled out May entirely.

And while he teamed up to play rugby with the professionals in Gloucester, it’s his own team he must keep together if he wants to cling on to crucial seats when voters head to the polls.