This year has long been framed as a historic “triple election year”, with the US election this November, the European Parliament elections in June, and the UK general election… at some point before the end of January 2025. Yesterday, speculation about the timing of the latter came to a swift and somewhat surprising end, as Conservative prime minister Rishi Sunak announced outside No.10 – while getting ominously soaked in pouring spring rain – that he had asked the King to dissolve Parliament and the general election would be held on 4 July.

A snap summer election wasn’t the obvious choice, with many political pundits having put their money on October. Whether a beleaguered Sunak – the fourth Conservative PM in five years – was prompted into action after some fractionally more positive news about the dire economy this week, or has just decided to finally rip the plaster off after 14 years of increasingly chaotic Tory government, who knows.

What is clear is that the next six weeks are going to be a frenzy of campaigning, slogans, political positioning and announcements, with very little tangible policy and – from 30 May – no legislation. With so much at stake for both main parties – and, indeed, for a country that currently feels like a blazing bin fire all of its own within the wider global omnishambles – we’re likely to see a fight that is “more bare knuckle than Marquess of Queensbury,” as Alan Boyd-Hall, head of public affairs at Grayling, elegantly puts it.

Boyd-Hall says it promises to be a particularly harshly-fought election: “We’ve seen the sort of attack ads that Labour ran at the end of last year and the Tories presumably have something similar up their sleeves. And that’s before we get the fake news and AI generated social media posts which purport to be sanctioned but are the product of independent operators. Voters will find it hard to distinguish genuine attack from fabricated deceit.”

Weber Shandwick’s UK head of public affairs Ella Fallows agrees: “Some are claiming this will be a ‘Guido’ campaign, which in non-Westminster terms means it will likely be messy and vitriol-packed, as Conservative strategists look to dig up any and all dirt they can find on Labour candidates. Sunak has set out his stall as the safety candidate in a scary world and will push the ‘you can’t trust Labour’ message, while Starmer will focus on change and trustworthiness. The single-word ‘Change’ slogan is clever, pithy and speaks to voters’ desire for renewal.”

Fallows says that, critically, “Labour will be parking red tanks on the Conservative Party’s lawn” when it comes to the issues they will focus on. “On the economy, immigration and crime, Starmer and [shadow chancellor] Rachel Reeves will use these issues to pick up votes from the Conservative voting coalition that returned such a thumping majority in 2019. Labour needs a 12.5% swing for a majority and they can’t achieve that without hoovering up voters who ticked Yes to Brexit and Conservative in 2019.”

Headland partner Toby Pellew, who started his career working for Conservative MPs at the House of Commons, points out that while Labour may have been as surprised as everyone else by the election date, campaign machines would have been prepared for months, with Labour emphasising stability and certainty – leader Keir Starmer’s response to the election announcement was heavy on “stopping the chaos” – pointing towards struggling public services and record high taxes, and the Conservatives suggesting that Labour is without a plan and that only Sunak can face up to the geopolitical challenges weighing on the UK economy.

In terms of differing campaign styles, he says: “Sunak instinctively doesn’t like to play dirty during campaigns. He struggles to deliver the personal criticisms and during his Tory leadership campaign talked about ‘going high when they go low’. This will be tested as the Conservative campaign machine ramps up the attack. Instead, expect to see Sunak on the road meeting voters and talking policy, while the heavy hits are left to CCHQ on social media.

“In contrast, Starmer is much better at landing the personal blows, but it won’t just be Sunak in his sights. We can expect to hear a lot about the mistakes of the [Liz] Truss and [Boris] Johnson eras again and again, while the party doubles down on showing how ‘out of touch’ the prime minister is with the average voter.”

At Rud Pedersen, managing partner Jon Aarons agrees that it’s likely to get personal, despite the British political system: “Sadly, I fear that this will be the most negative campaign in British political history. We have a parliamentary, not presidential, system and yet the focus will be on the two main leaders. Neither of them is well loved, even by their own activists, but each seems to want to make it personal.”

Aarons also underlines the inevitable influence of technology and social media in this election, “the worst of it deployed in hostile and mendacious social media campaigns, from the parties themselves as well as anti-democratic trolls.” However, he also hopes we might see more positive uses of technology, to motivate participation and amplify the voices of under-represented groups.

Edelman Global Advisory UK president Mohammed Sultan Hussein, who leads on public affairs, government relations and political advisory work in the UK, agrees that the campaign “is very likely to be Presidential and highly personal, as well as a referendum on the last 14 years… The prime minister will be keen to remind people of the actions he took as chancellor in response to the pandemic, when he was personally more popular with the public.”

At Lansons|Team Farner, public affairs lead Mitchell Cohen says the two leaders are essentially playing a “stick or twist” game in terms of their personal and party positioning: “Both Starmer and Sunak have set out their stalls for the coming weeks: stick with what you know under the Conservatives or change under Labour.

“While Starmer flies high in the polls, we are likely to see he and his top team sticking close to the narrative and demonstrating a united front. Building excitement within the electorate for his premiership will be key. Meanwhile, Sunak must shake off the widely-held view that his party ruined the economy and caused the cost-of-living crisis. He has already laid blame for the economic uncertainty of recent months at the door of the pandemic recovery, Ukraine, and international affairs. His messaging now focuses on reminding the electorate of why he was so popular during the pandemic and how effective he was as Chancellor.”

This is echoed by SEC Newgate director Fraser Raleigh, a former Conservative special adviser: “Both main parties have already divided into the ‘stick with the plan’ vs ‘time for change’ narratives that almost all election campaigns fall into. But the focus of their attacks is likely to be slightly different. The Conservatives will go hard on personal attacks on Keir Starmer, claiming he has no plan, is an unknown quantity and can’t be trusted to keep his promises. Labour will focus in on the wider Conservative brand as well as Sunak himself, tagging him with the baggage of his predecessors – particularly Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – and positioning the whole of the last ‘14 years of failure’ against the ‘decade of national renewal’ the party is promising.”

On messaging, Hussein says: “For the Conservatives it will be better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. The argument will be the recent economic news on growth and inflation show ‘things are going back to normal’, we live in unstable times, so don’t roll the dice, safer to choose the known and stick with us (with a bit of ‘promise we’ll do better’ thrown into the mix). For Labour, it will be the change message, grounded in empathy, emotional connection and an effort to showcase understanding of people’s lived experiences.”

On the other hand, MHP Group head of public affairs Tim Snowball thinks the Conservatives are likely to take a riskier comms approach during the campaigning period than Labour, who have been far ahead in the polls for some time: “Coming from so far behind, Sunak needs to be ready to take risks to shift the dial. This means doing the debates, bringing forward bold policy ideas, and not hiding away from the public. Of course, all of these have the potential to backfire spectacularly.

"The Tory campaign looks set to balance propagating fear of change, with an attempt to articulate an ambition and vision for Britain that may be lacking in a highly disciplined, play-it-safe Labour campaign. Labour’s comms team need to be ready for the highest possible level of media scrutiny and political attack. Critical to success will be isolating proactive and crisis comms operations to avoid getting bogged down.”

Hanover chairman Charles Lewington is also anticipating that Labour’s campaign will be devoid of risk, saying it’s “straight out of Aussie PM Anthony Albanese’s ‘boring but safe’ playbook” – but as the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

So what does the snap election mean for public affairs and corporate communications advisors? At Weber Shandwick, Fallows says that after calling for an election for the last 24 months, “our moment has come.”

She says preparing clients for a (likely) new government’s first 100 days and “identifying long-term campaigning opportunities that will shape policy and regulation for years to come” will be key. During the campaign itself, “both parties will showcase strong relationships with businesses, gathering endorsements through site visits and supportive quotes; we will be focused on identifying those limited but valuable opportunities to engage with busy prospective parliamentary candidates on the campaign trail and laying the groundwork for future relationships.”

However, Pellow says the immediate priority is what happens to draft legislation and regulation, some of which will have been months in the making and now risks failing at the last minute. “With little time left in the calendar before parliament is dissolved, a lot of bills are likely to fall during wash-up and many consultations will go into limbo. The ‘surprise’ election date will also play havoc with well-formed plans in terms of corporate news-flow and announcements that will now need either rescheduling or replanning.”

But he says the bulk of the work will be assessing when and how the next government will prioritise relevant sector policies: “While there will already be visibility after months of engagement, in reality detail on many policies is still very light. This is unlikely to change during a six-week campaign but businesses will be under pressure to assess any changes and ensure they are well positioned for the next government on 5 July”.

Boyd-Hall agrees that a certain amount of planning has already been underway: “The precise timing may have come as a surprise, one of the last weapons in Rishi’s arsenal, but businesses and other organisations have known that 2024 was the year of an election and will have been making preparations for likely change. But now it’s no longer a drill.

“Whatever the outcome, we are about to see huge political change in the UK. Businesses are rightly planning for a change in government, which will have significant policy impacts for UK businesses. The right preparation – informed by political insight and policy expertise – will ensure that businesses can mitigate risk and capitalise on opportunity. Under a potential Labour administration we’ll see a raft of new policies emerging; presenting both risk and opportunity.”

And whatever happens, there will be significant churn in MPs as they stand down or lose their seats, says Boyd-Hall: “By our calculations more than half of the next MP intake are likely to be new faces in parliament, requiring industry to almost start from scratch in building up a bench of allies, in addition to learning how to work with a whole new set of ministers and advisers.”

Cohen says the period ahead of the election will be complicated for clients and their advisory teams, as it leaves campaigns and engagement in flux: “For those with big PR moments planned, the timing could not be worse. Elections should be the time to take a step back and plan what your public affairs strategy for the new government could look like and how to get out of the blocks effectively on 5 July. Most clients have already been using the last 18 months to understand what a potential Labour government will mean, but now is the time to really face that reality.”

At MHP, Snowball says that while “at heart, most of our clients are political animals, who will crave our inside track on each of the campaigns,” elections also provide a rare opportunity to think of the big picture, especially with a likely change in direction after 14 years: “We will be working to help clients prepare for maximum impact in the new parliament. Finding points of alignment with Labour’s missions, identifying opportunities and risks in their emergent policy platform, and thinking creatively about ready-made solutions that can help achieve mutual objectives.”

After picking through the wreckage of carefully-crafted public affairs and comms strategies built around an autumn election, the next few weeks will be an essential period to prepare for what comes next, says Raleigh: “Clients will need to know what the main parties are (and aren’t) saying about the things that affect them and prepare to hit the ground running with a new set of ministers and – potentially – a very different Parliament and political climate.”

Hussein says developing a “deep, informed and actionable” understanding of how a new Government will seek to create impact and frame its political agenda in the first 100 days, how it will follow through during a first term, and how clients fit into that story, is crucial for businesses and organisations seeking to protect and enhance their license to operate.

Lewington – who was head of communications for the Conservative Party and former PM John Major’s press secretary before founding Hanover – points out there’s also a much bigger picture beyond the UK: “For global businesses, with a presidential election later in the year, UK-US relations will take some navigating, whoever wins on either side of the Atlantic. The direction of the EU will also change during the campaign with the rise of the populist right in Germany and France. Defence and security policy is a big imponderable. What will Labour’s ‘progressive realism’ foreign policy mean for the front line in Ukraine and trade relations with China?”

One thing is clear, whatever one’s political leanings, it’s going to be a very lively summer in the Westminster bubble and beyond; whether it’s truly a case of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, we shall have to wait and see.