| 1 December 2023, Friday |

Chris Mason: The week Rishi Sunak changed gear ahead of general election

The pace is quickening. The collective heart rate of Westminster is notching up.

The summit – a general election – is in sight, even if the time it’ll take to reach it is still guesswork.

There has to be an election by the end of January 2025 at the absolute latest.

“I think it’s going to be May!” one former cabinet minister confided to me, suggesting the broad Westminster consensus that the election is most likely to be in autumn 2024 might be wrong.

In truth, the precise timing will be decided by the prime minister and a tiny group of people around him; his best man turned political secretary James Forsyth, his chief of staff Liam Booth Smith and election strategist Issac Levido perhaps among a very limited few.

And they have no reason to have decided for certain yet anyway.

Stuff that is yet to happen could still play a big part in when polling day actually is.

But the gradient is steepening, the air is increasingly rarefied.

You can smell it, feel it, see it around Westminster.

‘Flashing lights wherever you look’

And the same will be true at the party conferences, starting with the gathering of Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth this weekend.

Rishi Sunak’s shift on green policies – revealed first by the BBC – felt like a beacon marking out this change.

Conservative campaign headquarters had been primed in advance and had their social media messaging ready to go, even if the leak to the BBC played havoc with their plans for 24 hours.

But there are other flashing lights wherever you look.

Not only was the man who is miles ahead in the polls glad-handing the president of France.

But when Sky News pointed out that Labour leader Keir Starmer had said “we don’t want to diverge” from the European Union if he becomes prime minister, cabinet minister Michael Gove was out in front of a camera having a pop at him within an hour or so.

Where a secretary of state instantly pounced on arguably rather loose language from Sir Keir, other cabinet ministers quickly followed suit.

The speed of the reaction was another illustration of campaign machines cranking up a gear.