‘Weak’ Rishi Sunak is at the heart of Labour’s election assault

Two years out from the next general election, the campaign to become Britain’s next leader is starting to take shape.

At Wednesday’s prime minister’s question time, Labour leader Keir Starmer arrived at what he sees as his key attack line against Conservative premier Rishi Sunak: that he is too weak and too rich to be in touch with ordinary Britons.

Sunak’s family fortune runs into hundreds of millions of pounds and Labour has previously gone after the prime minister for using private health care (the state-run National Health Service inspires almost religious fervor in British politics). This time Starmer blasted the hedge fund manager-turned-premier for protecting a tax break that saves affluent parents from paying a 20% sales tax on private school fees.

The ideological message is unsubtle. But as a political strategy it’s a curious choice when there are so many more important things that have gone wrong for the government and it says something interesting about the political moment in Britain.

In barely a year, the country has gone from one Tory prime minister whose allies talked of a decade in power to another who lasted only seven weeks. As Sunak tries to pick up the pieces of a political movement that imploded so spectacularly, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, is warning that the country faces a grim economic future of low growth and high taxes as far out as government forecasts stretch.

All that leaves Starmer in the box seat as the two parties look toward an election due by January 2025.

Strategists on both sides say Labour has more straightforward options to attack the Tories than to go after Sunak himself. Twelve years of Tory rule have crashed the economy, run down public services, pushed up taxes, failed to control borders and left a government defined by infighting and incompetence. 

That’s what’s given the opposition a 25-point lead in the latest YouGov poll, and led to an emphatic victory at a special parliamentary election in Chester on Thursday, according to one Labour aide who was critical of Starmer’s strategy. And other senior party figures recognize that private health care and private schools are hardly the most pressing issues facing the country.

But the Labour leader’s team are convinced that going after Sunak personally is fundamental to winning the next election. One pointed to a recent Lord Ashcroft survey showing Labour is ahead of the Tories on almost every policy issue, even on areas traditionally seen as more favorable to the Tories, such as the economy, crime and immigration. 

Sunak, however, still polls ahead of his party, so Labour wants to convince voters that he in particular will never be able to represent their interests. Using a football analogy, the aide said, Labour had already won the ball, and needed to take down the man as well.

Labour regularly runs focus groups in “Red Wall” seats, areas across the North of England and Midlands that are historically Labour-voting but turned Tory in 2019 while Boris Johnson was Tory leader. Voters there have repeatedly said they see Sunak as weak and out of touch, the aide said, and that’s why Starmer’s team think hitting those points will bear fruit.

Senior Tories, for their part, insist Starmer has made a strategic error by adopting what they call an anti-aspirational “class war” approach. They argue that most Brits don’t care if Sunak is rich and Conservative HQ released a counter-attack video highlighting Labour’s threat to push up private school fees.

That’s left the UK in the unusual situation in which both parties are choosing to campaign on the same issue from opposite sides. It’s far more common for the parties to try to force the issues on which they feel more in line with the public to the top of the agenda, with the Tories looking to talk about the economy, for example, while Labour tries to turn the conversation to the NHS. 

Such stark policy differences have not always been clear between Sunak and Starmer, two politicians from the centrist wings of their respective parties.

A Labour official argued the heightened contrast was a reflection of their shifting political objectives: the two parties are no longer competing for the working class voters in the Red Wall seats who gave Johnson the biggest Tory majority since 1987. 

The Tories are instead focused on simply defending their better-off base in the south, the Labour aide said, pointing to a YouGov poll from September showing just 10% of voters agree with Sunak that private schools should keep their tax break.

Labour also drew encouragement from a Downing Street briefing to the Sunday Times last weekend that Sunak was launching a strategy called “Operation Get Tough,” to demonstrate his hardline approach on immigration and environmental protesters. They saw it as proof their attacks on Sunak’s weakness had touched a nerve.

Strikes are another issue where each side is convinced they are right. 

The UK faces a wave of industrial action by nurses, teachers, rail and postal workers, among others, meaning strikes will affect the country every day until Christmas.

A government official said ministers hoped they could talk down trade unions from going ahead with the strikes but don’t feel under pressure to cave in: They are confident the public will quickly get fed up with strikes over Christmas and turn on Labour, especially after the festive season was ruined in recent years by Covid-19.

Conversely, a Labour official said that Starmer’s team is confident that it won’t be pigeon-holed for supporting supposedly radical unions. 

The party has developed a deliberately ambiguous position: it isn’t overtly supporting strike action, but it is betting that the voting public will put up with the annoyance of strikes because most people support workers demands for a better deal after years of low-pay under Tory governments. 

If the strikes disrupt preparations for Christmas, it may quickly become clear which side is right. But the Labour official added that other events would likely pose dangers for Sunak as well. 

That is a view privately shared by some government aides, who are terrified about the prospect of blackouts if Britain faces a cold weather snap and increased energy demand in January. 

Labour also thinks the government’s Leveling Up Bill — a key plank of the policy platform that won the Tories the 2019 election — would be unable to pass Parliament in any meaningful form, as different sections provoke opposition from different factions within the divided Tory party.

Sunak has embraced that 2019 manifesto as part of his claim to a mandate to govern — he was elected following a ballot of Tory lawmakers and has never faced the voters as party leader. 

If he is unable to persuade his party to follow through on those promises, it will hand even more ammunition to Labour to argue that the prime minister is too weak to even stand up to his own party. – BLOOMBERG