The puzzling gambles of Sunak and Macron

When UK prime minister Rishi Sunak announced that he was dissolving parliament and calling a snap election for July 4th, I like many people was surprised. There had been nothing in the news to trigger the move. He still had about seven months remaining before elections had to be held and there seemed to be no benefit to calling elections early since his party was so far behind in the polls. It would have made sense to wait until the polls improved. When you are the government with a large majority, you have some levers that you can use in terms of introducing policies and actions to improve your situation. The only reason for quitting early seemed to be a fear that the situation might get worse, though there were no known dark clouds on the horizon..

Then France’s president Emmanuel Macron also called a snap election to be held in two rounds on June 30th and July 7th for the French National Assembly. In this case, it followed the poor showing of his party in the elections to the European parliament where his Renaissance party came in third with about 15% of the vote with the far right National party of Marine Le Pen coming in first with about 31%.

But the decision here makes even less sense than Sunak’s. The last elections to the assembly were in 2022 and Macron’s own term as president runs for three more years. So Macron had a lot more time to try and improve his party’s fortunes before elections were due. Why would he expect his party to do well in the coming elections so soon after doing so poorly in the one just completed? It is true that the just completed election was for the European parliament that has less impact on French politics and everyday life than the one for the National Assembly. The European parliament deals with different issues and those elections have generally lower turnout. Does Macron think that the good showing of the far right would galvanize the French electorate of those more to the center to vote for his party to keep the National party out?

From reports that I have read, both Sunak and Macron made their decision without wide consultation within their parties and even those few who were consulted seemed to think that this was a bad idea. So why do it?

In Sunak’s case, the fairly large number of Conservative MPs, some prominent ones, who announced that they would not be standing for re-election suggests that they think the party’s fortunes are irredeemable. 75 of the 132 retiring MPs are Conservatives, about 25% of the current party seats. For Labour, 34 are retiring or about 17%, There was even speculation about the possibility that Sunak might quit or the party might replace him before the election, a rumor that he had to bat down.

There has been plenty of speculation about Sunak’s reasons for what looks like a rash action. One is that he has come to hate the job of being prime minister, knew that his party would lose badly and that he would be ousted as party leader and prime minister and decided, the hell with it, let’s just get the whole thing over with. Sunak does not seem to be very good at politics outside the traditional party infighting. He does not have charisma or appeal to the general public, projecting the image of an earnest striver rather than a natural-born leader. There have been reports that he and his wife, who are extremely wealthy, dislike living in the (for them) cramped official residence of 10 Downing Street and would prefer to live in their own home. There has also been speculation for a long time that the Sunaks really want to move to the US and had already explored options for becoming US citizens and also scouted out US schools for their children. None of these speculations are solidly sourced but they do explain what seems like a desire for a quick exit.

Macron’s motivations are harder to conceive and I have not seen any good suggestions either in terms of politics or personal life.

Maybe they both felt that making a bold counter-intuitive decision would make them look like decisive leaders and inspire the public to rally around them.

It seems like wildly risky gambles that have all the signs of backfiring badly.


  1. Dunc says

    I’m just going to copy what I said in the comments on Sunak’s puzzling election gamble:

    There are two reasons I can think of for him calling the election early:

    1. He can currently claim to have succeeded in bringing inflation (nearly) back to target. (Note that the announcement was made on the same day as the latest inflation figure was released.) Based on the data we already have, it’s highly likely that headline inflation is going to go back up again later in the year.
    2. It avoids actually having to deliver on his promises about the Rwanda scheme, which were almost certain to fall apart on contact with reality (again).

    There definitely are “known dark clouds on the horizon”, and no reasonable reason to hope for anything to improve. With this timing, they get to blame Labour when the economic numbers start going in the wrong direction again later in the year.

    Sidebar on the inflation numbers:
    The figure usually quoted is annual inflation, which is simply the sum of the previous 12 months of monthly inflation. Each month, the earliest month drops out of series, and a new month is added to it. Therefore, if you actually bother to look at the monthly data, you already have a very good idea of where the next few months of headline inflation are going, barring major unexpected developments. The fact that everybody acts like the monthly release of a new annual figure is a big event is just another testament to economic illiteracy. We knew the April 2024 annual number (published in May, on the day Sunak annouced the election) was going to be down, simply because the April 2023 monthly number was much higher than the following months. Similarly, we know that June and July 2023 monthlies were very low (July was negative), so when they drop out of the annual calculation, the annual number is going to go back up, unless we get another couple of months of very low to negative inflation now (which seems highly unlikely).

    I have no idea what Macron might be thinking.

  2. Dunc says

    Oh, and we also know that the inflation figure which includes housing costs is going to go up, because we know the trajectory of interest rates and the number of people who have to renegotiate their mortgages each month. Due to the combination of prolonged high interest rates and the relatively short fixed-rate duration of the typical UK mortgage, it’s an absolute nailed-on certainty that housing costs are going up, and going up a lot, for an ever-increasing number of people.

  3. says

    Yeah, with Macron I’m smelling a little whiff of David Cameron’s Brexit referendum fiasco: “There seems to be unexpected popular support for a really terrible idea, we all know it’s wrong but I don’t have the will or the guts to stand up against it myself, so lets have a quick election that will — we hope! — defeat this fascist groundswell for me…” Maybe I’m being paranoid and pessimistic, but I think Macron’s gamble is more likely to get bad results than good.

    And it bothers me even more that Macron did this very shortly after publicly saying NATO may need to step up and fight harder to defend Ukraine. Is he facing a backlash against that, to force him to call an election?

  4. David Brown says

    Gwynne Dyer ( suggests that Macron is taking the long view and hoping for/expecting a right-wing win this time around:

    He is deliberately giving Le Pen’s National Rally their chance at power three years early (now, not 2027), in hopes they will make a complete mess of it and lose power again in a few years.

    Nobody in the National Rally has any experience running a government, and the coalition of extreme-right parties Le Pen will have to assemble will be full of jostling egos and downright crazies. Give them enough rope, and maybe they’ll hang themselves.

    Or, Macron is just screwing up. Depends how much credit you want to give him.

  5. John Morales says

    Professional politicians who rise to the top generally are quite good at politics.

    Second-guessing experts about decisions within their field of expertise seems a bit ambitious.

  6. KG says

    Or, Macron is just screwing up.

    That’s my hunch. I think the EU election results were such a blow to his ego, he feels he must wipe them away with a political victory, and is deluded enough to think he’ll get one. I’m not sure whether this is so in France, but standard political “wisdom” says electorates don’t like their rulers bothering them with unnecessary early elections, and give them the finger.

  7. KG says

    John Morales@5,

    Professional politicians who rise to the top generally are quite good at politics.

    Generally but not always. One class of exception is rulers who have been in power more than a few years, by which time they are usually surrounded by sycophants who tell them what they want to hear. That may well be the explanation with Macron, who was famously a bit “L’État, c’est moi” even very early in his first term. Another class of exception is those who reached the top by default. Often this is because they have been number 2 to the previous leader for a long time and succeed when the latter drops dead, or sets up the succession for them. Sunak is a rarer case: he was given the leadership having previously lost in a contest with Truss (which goes against Mano’s belief that he’s good at the infighting bit of politics), who promptly self-destructed, leaving the Tory MPs unwilling to let another leadership contest go to the party members, who had just proved what atrocious judgement they have.

  8. jrkrideau says

    I remember reading a comment somewhere that Sunak wants out before some nasty things happen. An election defeat is not the end of the world and if he dodges a couple of bullets (economic meltdown, defeat in Ukraine) he is better off.

    There was also a comment about not wanting to be in office if Charles dies but I could not follow the reasoning here.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Today comes an article that says that the Sunaks own a $7.2 million home in California and about his other ties to Silicon Valley, adding fuel to the rumors that he may leave the UK after the election.

    On a recent afternoon in Santa Monica, the palm trees swayed in the afternoon sun next to the luxury apartment building in which Sunak and his wife own their penthouse. The building, constructed in 2014, offers a Starbucks on the ground floor and a brunch spot serving a $34 eggs Benedict with fresh crab and wasabi hollandaise sauce.

    His children would likely have their pick of elite schools in the area, rubbing shoulders with the children of celebrities — if they moved immediately after the election, they’d be here in time to start the new school year in California. Santa Monica is home to the prestigious Crossroads School, for example, which led a recent Vulture list of top schools for “nepo babies.” And not far away is Harvard-Westlake, which touts Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Lee Curtis and Ethan Peck as famous alumni.

  10. Dunc says

    Today comes an article that says that the Sunaks own a $7.2 million home in California

    Lol. I suppose it might do as a pied-à-terre, but I can hardly see it being their main residence. Remember, Rishi Sunak’s personal net worth is estimated to be around £700 million, and he’s the poor one in the family. They’re not going to be living in a mere apartment, and certainly not one worth such a paltry amount.

    If we take that £700 million estimate as broadly accurate, and assume he makes around 5% on it (a very conservative estimate), then he could buy another six penthouses just like that every year, purely out of his passive gains. And he’s the poor one in the family!

    Most people have absolutely no idea just how rich the rich really are.

  11. KG says

    Another possible motivation for Sunak’s decision surfaced today: the headline inflation rate in the UK declined to 2%, the official target. This was reasonably predictable, because it’s an annual rate, and April 2023 was a month of high price rises, and has now been replaced in the calculations by April 2024. Sunak can now boast that “The plan is working”, and is doing so. It won’t make any difference to the crushing defeat the Tories are facing, but he’s possibly deluded enough to think that it would. It’s almost certain to rise again in the next few months, for similar reasons. (A large proportion of the public think that if inflation is falling, that should mean priced go down. They want prices to return to what they were before inflation accelerated due to the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine -- not realising that such deflation would be economically disastrous.)

  12. KG says

    Talking of gambles, an amusing story from the UK election is that four people associated with Sunak are in trouble for betting on the date of the election -- presumably based on inside information. A police officer who was part of Sunak’s close protection team has been suspended and arrested, charged with “misconduct in a public office”, and two candidates and the husband of one of them, who is the Tory Party’s director of campaigning are under investigation by the Gambling Commission* (but Sunak has not suspended the candidates, despite calls to do so from Starmer and other opposition figures). It’s all of a piece with the putrid stench of corruption emanating from what may turn out to be the corpse of the party, and people are joking (?) that Sunak must have put a huge bet on fewer than 100 Tory MPs being returned -- the only way his chaotic campaign can be explained!

    *This is a public body that investigates allegations of cheating at gambling -- it was warned by one of the big bookmakers of dodgy bets on the election date, the Commision then warned other betting firms to keep an eye out. Whether the candidates have broken the law (if allegations against them are true) seems to be unclear.

  13. KG says

    Further to #13, an even more amusing development: Starmer has had to withdraw support from a Labour candidate, Kevin Craig, who placed a bet that the Tories would win the constituency he’s standing in! More amusing still, Craig is the founder and CEO of a PR company, PLMR -- but somehow failed to reflect that if his bet became public knowledge, it would look distinctly dodgy. Craig, who has given lavishly to the Labour Party and at least of the main leaders of its right wing (Rachel Reeves and Wes Streeting) -- I’m sure that had absolutely nothing to do with him being selected to stand as its candidate -- is now having his donations returned. There’s no evidence that he acted on inside knowledge or actually intended to lose the election in order to win his bet, but most voters are unlikely to make fine distinctions -- the “betting scandal” may now become grounds for “They are all the same” sentiments, rather than discrediting the Tories alone.

  14. Mano Singham says

    KG @#14,

    I saw that report and was highly surprised. Why would a candidate bet that he would lose? Betting on your own election is a really stupid thing to do. But at least betting that you would win might be taken as a show of confidence, since you are trying to win anyway. But betting that you would lose can be taken that you are planning to throw the election while pretending to try to win. Also, once again, unless he bet a huge sum (which would immediately raise suspicions) the monetary rewards seem negligible.


  15. KG says

    He claims that he was, when he made the bet, certain he would lose, and intended to give the proceeds to charity. But since the Tories have clearly been in line for a severe pasting for months, that seems rather implausible. However, I can’t think of any more plausible alternative, so maybe it’s actually true.

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