In the House of Commons on Monday, Tory backbencher Fay Jones urged Environment Secretary George Eustice to “restate his support for the UK red meat sector”. As a farmer himself, Eustice unsurprisingly had no hesitation in doing so.

But the exchange was a fitting start to a week that was dominated by political “red meat”, thrown at a rapid rate by Boris Johnson towards both his Tory backbenchers and key voter groups. Needing to keep his MPs onside to avoid another leadership challenge, and to get the public back onside to have a hope of winning the next general election, Johnson clearly felt his carnival of carnivores was smart politics.

What was lovingly called “Wedge Week” by some Conservative insiders was certainly dominated by a trio of dividing-line issues that Johnson believes could sate the appetite of both groups: Brexit, immigration and trade union power.

The new Northern Ireland Protocol bill was a fresh attempt to look robust with Brussels. The attempted deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda was meant to show he was “taking back control” of Britain’s borders. The ramped-up rhetoric on next week’s national rail strike was all about claiming Labour was on the side of the unions rather than the public.

With two by-elections due next week in West Yorkshire and Devon, the “red meat” tactics looked designed at least in part as a defensive move to try to avoid a double defeat. Yet they were also a dry-run for the kind of aggressive campaign the Tories want to run at the next general election when voters face a stark, forced choice between Johnson and Keir Starmer.

And it’s chatter about a snap election that has restarted again this week among several front and backbenchers in both main parties. At risk of upsetting Brenda from Bristol, there’s fresh speculation that the PM is thinking of going for an autumn election. There’s even a tentative date pencilled in some diaries: Thursday 27 October.

Given the Conservatives are between two and eight points behind in the polls, the very idea seems like madness to some. But the rationale may not be as mad as it first seems. First, some Tory strategists think the Labour lead is “soft” and can be changed in the heat of a campaign that plays to Johnson’s obvious strengths as a salesman and highlights Starmer’s weakness in failing to connect with the public.

Second, there’s a growing feeling among some in the party that an election has to either come early (this year) or very late (2024). The economy may head into recession in the winter and 2023 is seen as a non-starter because it will take time to turn things round. Crucially, NHS waiting lists will get worse before they get better, as Health Secretary Sajid Javid has admitted.

Just as importantly, going early would avoid three other chronic problems the PM faces: the Privileges Committee into whether he mislead Parliament over Partygate (expected to report in November), the national Covid inquiry (expected to start this autumn) and another confidence vote by his MPs (which technically can’t be held again until next June).

Avoiding a boundary review would also maintain the loyalty of some Tory troops. Chuck in a party conference in early October that would act as a mass rally, and a possible emergency Budget to secure fast-tracked income tax cuts, and the logic looks far from demented.

What’s interesting is how an October election is being touted not just by Johnson allies (who think he can win) but also some Johnson critics. Some rebels think that if a new Tory leader installed this summer, they can’t afford to “do a Gordon Brown”, when the former PM was defeated in 2010 after bottling an early 2007 election he may have won.

The whole idea is still fraught with danger, but some MPs think it’s credible. “Don’t forget he’s a gambler, that’s what he does: high risk, high reward,” as one put it to me. One MP said: “He’s mad enough to bring the whole house down, but it could work.”

Senior Labour figures are also acutely aware of a snap election possibility, even if they believe it would be very high risk for Johnson. They accept he may shrug off a double by-election defeat by pointing out that Wakefield was always on the edge of 2019 expectations and that most “stunning” Lib Dem gains often revert back to the Tories at a general election.

One upside of a snap campaign would be less time in which to be outspent by the wall of cash the Conservatives usually command. The downside would be Labour has yet to sort its own policy programme fit for a manifesto, and more importantly has yet to even select candidates for some key marginal seats where incumbency may protect sitting Tory MPs.

Labour is confident that its own conference this September will put on display an alternative government team, with the economy at the heart of the key speeches by Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.

But the party knows it has work to do on immigration policy, on Brexit and on avoiding being depicted as relying on the SNP after a hung Parliament. Even before Johnson’s lightning trip to Kyiv today, one Labour insider told me: “Zelensky will probably be guest speaker at the Tory conference and they will absolutely rinse that for everything they can.”

Whether or not there really is a general election this year, just the threat of one is focusing some minds in both parties. One danger for Johnson would be that he has so little concrete change (especially on “levelling up”) to show for his three years in No 10.

And dangling the prospect of “red meat” is one thing, actually delivering it is another. If it looks like he’s lost control of immigration, if a low-growth economy is ravaged by strikes and if Brexit still doesn’t look “done”, the risk is that both his party and the voters may bite him instead.