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Artillery Row

Sunak must take the fight to Labour

Starmer has been allowed to escape criticism and accountability

Since the Prime Minister’s decision to call a general election, the Conservative Party has bombarded the news cycle with an uncharacteristic salvo of policy announcements in the first week of the campaign. 

In recent years, the party has been accustomed to being the front runner: holding its policies until late in the campaign, and using the six weeks before the polls open to run on broad, thematic issues. Not so this time. We have been treated to ideas such as the reintroduction of national service, the promotion of apprenticeships over poor quality university degrees, further enhancement of the state pension, and new steps to tackle tax avoidance. Much of this thinking has come from one stable: Onward think tank, whose former director runs Rishi Sunak’s policy unit. 

Labour is running the campaign of the front runner, in style and in reality. Keir Starmer is doing all he can to reduce any attack surface for the time being, announcing minimal policies, and has spent the last few days purging the party of Corbynite candidates.

Will the flurry of Tory pledges move the dial and bring former Conservative voters back home to the Blue Team in time for 4th July? I am unsure. It is hard for a party to promise new policies that absolutely must happen after it has been in office for so long, and has chosen to go to the polls earlier than expected. 

So far, the opinion polls show Labour retaining a large lead over the Conservatives. It seems that the public have tired of the party which has been in office for over 14 years. Their best hope is not another policy announcement, but sustained and precise scrutiny on both the records and ideas of the Labour Party leadership.

The latest attacks from the Prime Minister on Starmer do not cut it

As Boris Johnson said in his Daily Mail column last week, “the one advantage of an election period is that the Opposition lose the luxury of obfuscation”. The public are invited to elect a government, and they will consider who they are electing. 

The latest attacks from the Prime Minister on Starmer do not cut it. Sunak claims that voting Conservative will deliver lower interest rates — perhaps he is about to change his mind on Bank of England independence — and that the public cannot trust Starmer with their savings. If the Tories want to take the fight to Starmer and Reeves, they have to be much more aggressive and direct. Though this is not in the Conservative Party leader’s style — readers will remember he deployed Dominic Raab to deliver his most aggressive broadsides against Liz Truss in the 2022 leadership election — he will have to summon up the courage to do it. 

Boris Johnson has a knack for political sparring, and he is surely right to say that nothing should be off the table when it comes to Keir Starmer. If he is proud of his record running the Crown Prosecution Service, then it should be challenged, as should his years as an MP campaigning for freedom of movement. He should be grilled on why he thinks his bureaucratic fixes — moving civil servants around newly named offices — will solve the small boats crisis, instead of reforms to human rights law which put Britain’s national interest first. Indeed, he should also be asked why he signed a letter to prevent the deportation of a group of foreign criminals, one of whom went on to commit a murder, after the deportation was cancelled following his campaign.

Furthermore, the public should observe his inconsistency. The beneficiary of a scholarship to an independent school now wants to put VAT on such schools’ fees. This would likely lead to the disappearance of all such scholarship schemes which transformed the lives of many from lower middle class backgrounds, from Keir Starmer to Margaret Thatcher. Whatever one might think of the Labour left, it is worth asking why has he trashed every one of his pledges to win the Labour leadership since becoming Leader of the Opposition? Can the public trust this man? 

If this week’s embarrassing letter from over 100 supposed “business leaders” is anything to go by, then Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor, is also an untapped area of vulnerability. She suggests that a few years as a junior economist in the Bank of England – working for its current Governor — means she is qualified to “run” the British economy. This may come as news to the people who actually drive the British economy: businesses of all shapes and sizes, whose owners and staff work hard to serve their customers and make a profit at the end of the day. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that her letter contained a rag-tag selection of people working in charities, academics with questionable qualifications, and even Labour Party activists.

Reeves and Starmer’s instincts on economic policy should be cause for alarm. The Labour Party is floating regulatory and tax changes which will damage the British people’s pensions and savings. It is telling that the only people who will get an exemption from their proposed “lifetime allowance” — a cap on tax-free pension contributions — will be NHS staff. The Labour Party will always privilege the public sector over the private sector, even when it is the fruits of the private sector’s labour which employs every NHS employee in the country. 

These are hard arguments for this Conservative Party to make, but it must take a leaf out of Boris Johnson’s book and make them. Many have suggested this election is going to be an “anti politics” election. That offers the Tories a slim opportunity. If Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives are to have any hope over the next five weeks, they must sow doubt and disillusionment about Labour with the public, and force them to expose their ideas. A pox on all their houses affects everyone, after all.

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