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What is the best bet for business?

Timing when to call a General Election is always a tactic, often a gamble. There is no dead cert. So, as the odds shorten, Jim McClelland asks: What is the best bet for business?

If you like a flutter, then gambling on the date of the UK General Election is one way to go. Political punters have been placing their bets all year, anywhere from May to November.

Technically the latest the UK could go to the polls is January 2025, but that would require Parliament to be dissolved after midnight on 17 December — as that marks the date exactly five years on from the inaugural meeting following the last election, in 2019.

The January scenario is therefore highly unlikely, not least because Rishi Sunak himself is already on record stating that the election will take place in 2024, for sure.

So, when might it actually happen?

No May madness, so odds on Q4

A May election is effectively off the table. The first two weeks of June have previously proved popular (in 1983, 1987, 2001 and 2017), but with the Conservatives currently trailing in the polls, such a snap call would be a surprise tactic and a huge wager.

The summer months of July and August (plus, maybe even September, too) are always less favourable, due to the holiday season and the Commons itself being in recess.

Therefore, the smart money has to be on a date in the final quarter of the year.

Though the focus is on all things domestic, there is a global context to consider here, too.

Do everything you possibly can to minimise risk and maximise resilience

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist and speaker

Year of elections worldwide, India to US

From an economic markets point of view, it is worth remembering that the UK election is by no means the only one of significance on the world calendar for 2024.

Happening much sooner, the General Election in India will be the largest ever seen, with almost one billion people eligible to vote this time. The multi-phase process is due to begin this month, running from 19 April to 1 June. The results will be announced on 4 June.

Then, of course, we have the US Presidential elections taking place towards the end of the year. Americans will head to the polls to cast their votes on 5 November 2024, with the winner officially due to take office in the White House in January 2025.

The timetable in the US is important, as it is widely assumed that the UK Prime Minister would be keen to avoid a clash with the Presidential race. Therefore, if that programme pretty much rules out November, plus December might be cutting it fine for the dissolution of Parliament, that leaves October as perhaps the most likely month for the UK.

So, what might be the impacts, positive and negative, of an October election?

It’s the economy, stupid!

Back in 1992,’It’s the economy stupid’ was a banner slogan of the successful campaign that propelled President Clinton into office in the US. Whilst Bill and Rishi are worlds apart as politicians and personalities, the same principle still applies in 2024, in the UK.

The Tories have always pitched themselves as the safe-hands party, when it comes to taking care of the country’s finances — despite the fact that all the worst recessions since the 1970s happened on their watch, in the Eighties, Nineties, Noughties and Twenties.

Moreover, as a former Chancellor, Sunak takes pride in his professional ability to manage money matters. Any meaningful improvement in the UK economy would therefore play to his perceived strengths and provide a campaign platform for going to the public.

In this regard, the later the election, the better for the current government. Prospects look set to strengthen for many key national and regional economies around the world, over the months to come, with the UK no exception.

Stock markets might be getting the jitters, as the tech-led boom slows, but fears of a deep recession are easing, as growth trends continue to tempt investors. Crucially, as the spectre of inflation fades, interest rate cuts are definitely on the agenda in the EU, UK and US, albeit only perhaps in the second half of the year. In short, time is on Sunak’s side.

He will need all the help he can get, however, to persuade the general public that the good times are here again. The impact of the cost-of living-crisis is still ongoing and painful for many, plus every additional month of high interest rates hurts homeowners and borrowers.

But what does the delay mean for business?

Minimise risk and maximise resilience

Well, there are always winners and losers. When markets are volatile, speculators and opportunists might make a quick buck, but uncertainty is generally bad for business.

Also, as with consumers, many companies have yet to feel any real economic benefit.

In the construction industry, for example, the latest official monthly figures from the Office for National Statistics estimate that output fell 1.9% in volume terms in February 2024.

Whilst heavy rainfall may have played a part, this drop still reverses the 1.1% increase in January, and more. There were decreases in both new work (2.3% fall), and repair and maintenance (-1.4%). Growth is not just slow, it is absent. The graph is not going up, yet.

So, in one sense, the likelihood that any election is probably at least six months away does provide some respite and time to plan for potential changes ahead. On the other hand, if the incumbent administration is thought to be on its way out, the country can feel in limbo — waiting to learn what the future may bring and wary of commitment in the meantime.

Also, when it comes to the bigger picture, there are no guarantees. As evidenced by the traumatic and tragic events in first Ukraine and now Gaza, conflict is an ever-present threat. Such global shocks are beyond the control of UK politics, so no timing is risk-free.

Therefore, the best bet is simply not to gamble. Unless your business plan is predicated on a specific policy initiative, or dependent on public funding, you probably want to hedge.

It is time for prudence. So, diversify revenue streams, shore up capital reserves, optimise operational efficiency and asset management, plus finesse your talent and recruitment. In other words, do everything you possibly can to minimise risk and maximise resilience.

It is not a sexy strategy; but it is a sustainable one.

Jim McClelland is a sustainable futurist, editor, journalist and speaker