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26 June 2024

Rishi Sunak’s aggressive strategy is his best hope

The Prime Minister’s negative attacks are desperate but he has no better option.

By George Eaton

For much of the general election campaign, Rishi Sunak has resembled a broken man. He was humiliated over his early exit from the D-Day commemoration and has proved incapable of narrowing Labour’s 20-point poll lead. 

But in tonight’s BBC election debate, Sunak delivered his most energetic performance of the campaign. With only a week until polling day, the Prime Minister has (correctly) resolved that attack is the best form of defence. Rather than even attempting to make a positive case for the Conservatives, he focused on sowing doubt over the opposition. Negative campaigning enjoys a deservedly bad reputation – but it does change minds.

Tonight, Sunak relentlessly targeted Keir Starmer, imploring voters not to “surrender” their family finances, pensions and the nation’s borders to Labour (repeating the word so often that he came to resemble the late Ian Paisley). Talk of a “supermajority” – an abstract discussion to most of the public – was shunned in favour of something far harder-edged. 

At several points, this more aggressive Sunak succeeded in unsettling Starmer. Challenged on how he would handle illegal immigration, the Labour leader’s answer (“processing”) failed to land. Sunak was met with waves of applause as he declared: “Are you going to sit down with the Iranian Ayatollahs? Are you going to try and do a deal with the Taliban? You are taking people for fools.”

When Starmer derided Sunak for once saying the Conservatives needed to unite behind Liz Truss, presenter Mishal Husain pointedly interjected: “Hang on, you know what it’s like to fall in behind a leader of your party”. As Sunak audibly chuckled at this Jeremy Corbyn reference, applause reverberated around the room. 

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The leaders’ contrasting styles reflected their polling positions. Sunak now has almost nothing to lose; Starmer has a great deal to lose. If the Labour leader, more than ever, resembled a man carrying a precious Ming vase across a highly polished floor, Sunak was simply intent on throwing it at him. 

But Starmer still managed to land some blows of his own. “If you listened to people in the audience and people in the country more often you might not be so out of touch,” he quipped of Sunak’s repeated interruptions. In a knowing reference to the Prime Minister’s extravagant wealth and transatlantic lifestyle, he declared that “his lived world is millions of miles away from the lived world of individuals across the country”.

Perhaps the most telling moment came when an audience member asked “are you two really the best we’ve got?” and was met with the biggest applause of the night. Though Starmer’s personal ratings are far ahead of those of Sunak (+4 to -44), few doubt that Labour’s vast poll lead owes more to anti-Tory sentiment than to genuine enthusiasm. 

But Starmer is still set to achieve the biggest victory in his party’s history. Tonight he was focused on doing nothing to upset that advance. Sunak, by contrast, had every incentive to fight dirty. He has already sacrificed much dignity. 

This new strategy won’t change the state of the race but it might just help the Tories save some seats. The question that Conservatives will ask of Sunak is simple: what took you so long?

[See also: The death of the levelling-up dream]

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