Rishi Sunak Will Insist He's Better Trusted On The Economy Than Keir Starmer
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting the East Midlands (Alamy)
With 2024 almost certain to be an election year, an unofficial campaign has already kicked off, and the Tories are set to employ their old faithful argument that they are the only party who can be trusted with the economy.
Keir Starmer, meanwhile, is all too keen to point to recent evidence to the contrary, with regular references to the fiscal antics of Rishi Sunak's predecessor Liz Truss, and is asking voters to give Labour a chance to turn Britain's fortunes around.
Having sought to defuse repeated calls for a May election with comments that it was his "working assumption" the poll would be held in the second half of the year, Sunak is now preparing to use the coming weeks and months to put forward an economic case for why the country should keep him in Downing Street.
The Prime Minister's core pitch to the nation will be as follows: with inflation falling, the government is now in a position to cut more taxes at the Spring Budget, scheduled for 6 March. Pointedly distancing himself from Truss, he will argue that this is thanks to his sensible stewardship of the nation's finances since entering No.10 in October 2022, and promise a tax-cutting, economic competence that he — not Starmer — is best placed to deliver.
Sunak will take this message on the road with him next week as he continues a tour of his preferred format of question and answer sessions with members of the public. He is expected to hold what No.10 calls a "PM Connect" event on Monday, following trips this week to Mansfield in the East Midlands and Stockport in the northwest. He will no doubt be hoping for a better reception that he got in the latter, however, where members of the public booed and shouted "resign" as he hurriedly made his way from a café to his car.
Claiming that Labour cannot be trusted with the economy is by no means a new line of attack from the Conservatives. They have long made it a key pillar of their campaigning, notably ahead of the 2010 election when they repeatedly drew attention to the financial crisis of the mid-noughties. They have since stayed in power for the best part of fifteen years.
But despite the huge damage done to the Conservative party's reputation for economic competence by Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng's calamitous mini-budget, Tory strategists still believe this classic strategy of undermining Labour's economic competence is their best hope of narrowing the opposition's large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls and avoiding defeat.
Luke Tryl, the UK director at think tank More In Common, said a perception of an economic turnaround was ultimately the beleaguered Conservative party's "only path" to recovery.
Halving inflation has been the only one of the Prime Minister's five pledges that he has managed to hit so far, although this is largely due to factors beyond his control, and prices remain high. It fell to 3.9 per cent before the turn of the year, and there are suggestions that it could drop to less than two per cent in April. With interest rates also expected to continue going down in 2024, which could make some mortgages more affordable, it is possible imagine a scenario later in the year whereby Sunak can build a general election campaign around a claim to have started to get the economy back on track.
One former Tory strategist, who worked on several election campaigns, said Sunak should make the months leading up to the general election "an economy year" because it is the last remaining card he has left to play in his bid to avoid defeat. "It is the only area where the Tories actually have a better story than Labour, so don't let them win the debate," they said.
Conservative MPs believe that inheritance tax could provide Sunak with a well-needed dividing line heading into the next general election, with the Prime Minister and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt considering a reduction in the Spring Budget. Starmer has already said that a Labour government would reverse any such move by the Tories, arguing "further tax cuts for those that are very wealthy" are not the way forward.
Tryl stressed, however, that while the economy represented the only possible Tory path to a significant electoral recovery, it is a "hard" one.
“The first question is have people switched off entirely no matter what happens? That is what happened to John Major at the 1997 general election, when the economy was doing very well in the run-up to the Labour Party landslide," he told PoliticsHome.
“Secondly," he added, "if the economy is brighter in 2024, will people actually feel the benefit?
“That’s where people in Westminster sometimes get it wrong. This week, for example, we have heard about interest rates coming down this year, but mortgage payments are still going to be a lot higher for people than they are now. ‘It could have been a lot worse’ is not a very compelling argument.”
It is for this reason that Labour is bullish about challenging the Tories on tax and the economy, and has gone as far as putting it at front and centre of its latest attack material.
“We don’t just expect an election on the economy, we want an election on the economy," Starmer declared in a speech in Bristol on Thursday that was widely viewed as his unofficial general election campaign launch.
Labour strategists believe Truss's short-lived stint in Downing Street has put the Conservative party in a much weaker position to attack Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves on economic competence, with one source close to the Leader of the Opposition telling PoliticsHome it is a "different" terrain altogether heading into the next election.
“The Conservatives aren’t coming at this from the place where they used to, which was that you [the general public] may not like us, but you don’t have to worry about us when it comes to looking after the economy. People just don't believe that any more," they said.
“It’s a different fight. We are fighting a different party with a different reputation.”
Speaking to PoliticsHome earlier this week, a separate Labour source claimed that Hunt's announcement in the Autumn Statement that the government would cut National Insurance contributions by two per cent had only served to remind voters that they were financially "worse off" after 14 years of Conservative government.
"And it's reminding people: why is the tax burden at the highest since the Second World War?," they said.
"We're fairly content with people being reminded of that, and the government will wear that record."
In recent opinion polls, Labour has not just had large leads over the Conservatives when it comes to voter intention, but also the historically unusual advantage of leading Tories when it comes to which party is perceived as best at handling the economy. If this trend continues in 2024, then Starmer will be firmly on course to becoming the party's first prime minister in nearly 20 years.
However, if signs that Sunak is starting to reverse that trend start to show in the coming months, then Conservative MPs will be more hopeful that the next general election is not yet a done deal.
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