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Rishi Sunak's Economic Attacks On Labour Will Be "Very Difficult To Pull Off"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking in Enfield, North London (Alamy)

5 min read

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's claim that Labour lacks economic competence might prove a "very difficult" sell with voters who continue to associate him with the fiscal turmoil of his predecessor Liz Truss, according to a pollster.

In a combative and highly-political speech on Monday morning, which sounded like it could have been delivered on an election campaign trail, the Prime Minister talked up his and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's business credentials while accusing Labour leader Keir Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves of planning for reckless spending. 

Sunak accused Starmer and Reeves of "rank hypocrisy" when it comes to economic discipline, claiming that the pair "talk the talk" when it comes to wanting to reduce the country's debt but "cynically" have opposed all plans he has brought forward to do so.

"The truth is Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have tried to block or opportunistically oppose almost every major decision we took to get our debt falling," Sunak said. "If they get the chance, they’ll make the problem even worse: continuing the big government, big spending approach of the pandemic and promising to borrow a further £28 billion a year."

Sunak took the unusual decision to liken the Labour's spending plans to those of his own party only last year under his predecessor Liz Truss. The former prime minister's plans for wholesale tax cuts spooked investors, unleashed chaos in the markets, and ultimately led to her being ousted from Downing Street just six weeks after entering office.

"Blowing tens of billions of pounds on unfunded spending is just as dangerous as blowing tens of billions of pounds on unfunded tax cuts," Sunak said today. He added that he and Hunt "spent most of our careers in business" and "understand" how it works.

But Labour figures remain relaxed about Sunak's attempt to create this dividing line.

"Rishi Sunak and the Conservatives have left debt at nearly 100 per cent of GDP. That is their record after thirteen years of economic failure. We won’t take lectures from them," a Labour source told PoliticsHome.

The Tory party has accused Labour of economic incompetence with great electoral success since the 2008 financial crisis. Former Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron, who Sunak made his new Foreign Secretary last week, deployed this line of attack effectively to win the 2010 and 2015 general elections. In the 2017 and 2019 elections former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was accused of promising uncosted spending plans. One of the biggest challenges for Labour in recent years has been shaking off this public perception. 

But according to Scarlett Maguire, Director at JL Partners Polls, it will probably be much more difficult for the Prime Minister to play this card at the next election as long as the public associates him with the economic "mess" created by the last Conservative government. 

"In terms of public perception, economic competence used to be one of Rishi Sunak's biggest strengths, especially going back to when he was Chancellor," she explained to PoliticsHome.

"The problem is that in the wake of Liz Truss' mini-budget the Conservatives lost any claim to it with the electorate. Labour now has a ten point lead on the question of 'which political party would be best at handling the economy?'."

Maguire said that while there is still some public nervousness about Labour's economic record going into the next general election, the damage done by last year's mini-budget looms larger in the minds of voters. She added that Sunak's personal brand is not yet strong enough to convince the electorate that he is a clean break from previous Tory rule.

"Rishi Sunak will be hoping that he can exploit existing hesitations about voting Labour at the same time as distancing himself from his own party's recent record, but given his own personal ratings are currently so low, this could be very difficult to pull off," she said.

The Prime Minister spoke at a college in Enfield, north London ahead of Wednesday's Autumn Statement, when Hunt will set out the government's economic plans for the months ahead.

For months, the pair have been under growing pressure from restless Conservative MPs to slash tax at this week's long-awaited fiscal event, and in his speech this morning Sunak dropped a heavy hint that cuts would indeed feature in Hunt's package of announcements.

"Now that inflation is halved and our growth is stronger, meaning revenues are higher, we can begin the next phase and turn our attention to cutting tax," the Prime Minister said. He was not specific on which taxes he could cut when asked by reporters for detail. There is a growing expectation that the government plans to cut national insurance or income tax on Wednesday. 

Tory backbencher pressure on the PM to cut tax has intensified in recent days with MPs frustrated by the Supreme Court ruling that the government's plans to deport migrants to Rwanda is illegal, and Sunak's ongoing struggle to improve his party's poor ratings in the opinion polls. A senior Conservative figure said Sunak "will want to give some red meat" to his detractors in a bid to lighten their mood.

According to a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimate, the Conservatives will have been responsible for the largest set of tax rises in 70 years in the period between the 2019 general election and the next one, which must be called before the end of 2024. 

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