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Recession Marks The Start Of A Difficult Weekend For Rishi Sunak

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Cornwall (Alamy)

4 min read

Confirmation that the UK has entered a recession brought what felt like a brief period of renewed Tory momentum to a halt as voters went to the polls in two by-elections for the party on Thursday.

One Conservative MP told PoliticsHome they were "really worried" about new economic data, warning that it will mean voters feeling "more and more tightened" as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tries to mitigate the decline of his party's popularity before the general election, which must be called this year. 

The Office for National Statistics published highly anticipated data on Thursday that showed the UK had entered a recession after two consecutive quarters of negative growth, clashing with one of Sunak's five central pledges to grow the economy before the country next goes to the polls.

The underlying data appeared to paint an even bleaker picture of economic conditions in the UK in a make-or-break year for the two leading political parties. There have been seven consecutive quarters of negative growth per person, dating back to the beginning of 2022, said the ONS — the longest stretch on record.

Luke Tryl, UK Director at More in Common, told PoliticsHome the news was "damaging" for Sunak's "beleaguered" Conservatives because it will make it even harder for the party to convince the public that it is best placed to oversee an economic recovery.

Heading into a general election, which Sunak has indicated is likely to be in the Autumn, the Tories have put a promise to repair the economy at the centre of their message, warning voters that a Labour government would take the country back to "square one".

"The truth is that in real terms, being up or down 0.3 per cent doesn't make much of a difference to people, but in this case the symbolism matters," Tryl continued. 

"If the Conservatives are to have any hope of turning it around at the general election, it's got to be based on 'we know things have been difficult, but we are the ones who can get things back on track'. This dents their central message."

He added that the timing of the ONS release was a particular blow for the Conservatives because it meant the focus had shifted back to their perceived failure and record of delivery, and away from the tumultous few days endured by Keir Starmer's Labour Party.

"This week has been the first in a long time when the Conservatives have had Labour on the back foot, largely due to self-inflicted Labour woes with the green U-turn and Rochdale," Tryl added.

"This dents that momentum and shifts the focus back to Tory failure, and that is damaging."

One Conservative MP and former minister feared Tryl's assessment was correct. "That [the recession] plus the by-elections may make for a difficult weekend for Rishi and might take pressure off Keir after an awful couple of weeks," they told PoliticsHome. 

Today people in Wellingborough and Kingswood are participating in by-elections to elect successors to former Conservative MPs Peter Bone and Chris Skidmore respectively. Labour is the favourite to win in both seats, despite sizeable Tory majorities in both constituencies (over 18,000 in Wellingborough and over 11,000 in Kingswood), in what would represent two more bruising by-election defeats for the Prime Minister.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have sought to pin blame for today's gloomy economic news firmly on Sunak, with both parties dubbing it "Rishi's recession".

In a speech this morning, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said: "This isn’t a question of lines on a graph. It’s about the health of our high streets; about growing businesses; secure, well-paid jobs; and money in the pockets of working people.

"The British people did not need to see these figures today to tell them that the economy is not working. That we are in the midst of a cost of living crisis and that they are worse off.

"But these numbers shine a spotlight on the scale of that failure."

The UK's growth figures going in the wrong direction will likely put Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt under even more pressure from Conservative backbenchers to make significant tax cuts at next month's Spring Budget, which is scheduled for 6 March. 

"We need to boost growth by cutting taxes," said one Tory MP.

Sunak and Hunt have publicly promised tax reductions will come next month but there are growing questions over just how much room they will have to do so in light of Thursday's economic data, potentially setting up a clash with tax cut-hungry Conservative backbenchers.

Additional reporting by Zoe Crowther and Nadine Batchelor-Hunt.

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