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Tory MPs Want "Security" To Dominate Their General Election Campaign

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting an RAF base in Scotland in December (Alamy)

4 min read

A growing number of Conservative MPs want Downing Street strategists to put "security", including a major pledge to boost defence spending, at the centre of the Tory party's general election campaign.

PoliticsHome understands Tory backbenchers are urging No. 10 to consider making it a dominant and recurring theme of the campaign, covering not just national security and the issue of defence, but energy security and people feeling secure on their streets.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has so far refused to set out a specific date for the next general election, despite repeated questioning, but has said he expects it to take place in the second half of 2024. Legally, he must call an election by the end of the year and it's widely expected the poll will be held in November. 

The Tories have so far put the economy at the heart of its bid to avoid defeat to Keir Starmer's Labour. On Wednesday, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said inflation falling to 3.2 per cent shows that the Government's "plan is working".

However, Labour's large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls are showing no signs of falling, with a More In Common poll published today giving Labour a 17 point lead. Among Tories there are fears of huge losses at local and mayoral elections taking place 2 May.

Conservative MPs who are urging the Prime Minister to lean into a security-heavy campaign believe that while ultimately it is unlikely to produce a surprise Tory win, it could help narrow the gap and give the party a fighting chance to retain more of its MPs. 

Onward, the centre-right think tank with close links to Downing Street, argues in its research that making people feel more secure in their local areas, through policies on neighbourhood policing and combatting local crime, is key to electoral success. The current No. 10 deputy chief of staff, Will Tanner, joined Downing Street from the think tank.

When it comes to national security, ministers are under pressure from Tory MPs to increase defence spending against what is seen as an unstable international backdrop.

One former secretary of state told PoliticsHome that with turmoil in the Middle East at risk of escalating in the coming months, and as Russia prepares to push for territorial gains in its illegal invasion on Ukraine this summer, the Conservative party will be left with little choice but to include a major pledge on defence spending in its general election manifesto.

The government is currently committed to increasing defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP "when the economic situation allows", but numerous Conservative MPs want ministers to expedite the pledge by boosting spending sooner.

One senior Tory said Downing Street could potentially leave Labour with another pre-general election "trap" by expediting the 2.5 per cent pledge or committing to spend 3 per cent, putting pressure on Starmer and Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves to match it.

Starmer has gone as far as mirroring the Government's current pledge, confirming last week that as prime minister he would raise defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP when economic conditions allow if Labour wins the next general election.

Edward Arnold, a Senior Research Fellow at defence think tank RUSI, said yesterday that a future Labour administration could find it as difficult as the current Tory regime to “unlock” funds for defence given the importance the party places on its fiscal rules. 

“At the moment the difficulty is the tight control over fiscal rules and policy announcements. Labour will criticise the current Government for their cuts, but they won’t go as far to say they would reverse them,” he told PoliticsHome.

There is also a belief among Conservative MPs that national security is a vulnerability for Labour given the views of the party's former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has spent most of his political life campaigning for the UK to give up its nuclear weapons. There could be an "anti-nuclear" hangover for the Tories to exploit, said one former Cabinet minister.

However, recent polling suggests the opposition party is currently in a stronger position on defence heading. A Redfield & Wilton poll conducted at the end of last month found that Labour was more trusted on "national security and defence" than the Conservatives, by 34 per cent to 23 per cent.

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