What Rishi Sunak said was: “My working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year and, in the meantime, I’ve got lots that I want to get on with.”

What he meant was: “My working assumption is that I will lose a general election in the first half of this year and, fingers crossed, something comes along to save me.”

The Prime Minister had many good reasons for giving his almost-promise about the timing of the election today.

With the flip of the calendar into 2024, it’s no longer enough to try and wave away talk about the timing as idle speculation and Westminster chatter. 

His opponents had been talking up the likelihood of a May election on the back of the spring budget on March 6 and to coincide with English council elections.

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak accused of 'bottling it' as he signals autumn election

If he had let speculation about that take hold, any announcement of a later date would have seen him labelled scared and panicked. So best to get it out of the way early.

On a minor note, there was also the satisfaction of thoroughly eclipsing Keir Starmer’s speech earlier in the day about Labour’s plans for a return to office.

But life, as Mr Sunak has surely worked out by now, cares little for his plans.

He may have acted rationally, but he is damned regardless. 

Autumn and winter general elections were common at the start of the last century, but they are a definite rarity these days. 

Only two of the 14 held in the last 50 years were in the latter half of the year - the second election of 1974 was in October, while Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ election was in December 2019. Compare that to five elections each for May and June. 

So Mr Sunak’s decision to go late is putting the Tories’ weakness up there in lights. 

That will undoubtedly spook his MPs, who are already quivering at the right-wing Reform party fielding candidates against them, and are now likely to get even more fractious. 

Not that they had been entirely clueless. 

Labour has been leading the Tories in the opinion polls for over two years and the current poll of polls has Sir Keir Starmer’s party 18 points ahead of Mr Sunak’s.

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Still, there’s a difference between knowing it in your gut and the party leader admitting it.

Mr Sunak’s statement also fuels a very damaging narrative.

The same one that defined Gordon Brown in 2007 as he dithered over an election after replacing Tony Blair.

Mr Brown was said to have “bottled it”, and loss of nerve is not what voters want in a leader.

Mr Sunak’s opponents immediately labelled him a bottler too after his comment. For good measure, they said he was “squatting” in No10 and should clear out pronto.

The upshot is that the PM manifestly does not look in control of events. 

Despite the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act giving him the power to name his own date, he has been backed into the second half of the year against his will.

With every day that passes, the walls will close in and he will look less dignified and electable, until he is like a fox cornered by hounds, wretched and defeated, waiting for the spade.