If you watched Prime Minister’s Questions last week, you might have noticed something striking about every single one of Keir Starmer’s questions to Boris Johnson. The Labour leader didn’t ask about lockdown parties or Met police investigations, or cite the Prime Minister’s fragile standing among his MPs. Instead, as one member of Starmer’s team puts it, “we literally just asked six questions about Rishi!”
Labour’s strategy of folding the Chancellor into its attacks on Boris Johnson is so obvious as to be visible from outer space, something those close to Starmer happily admit and joke about (“we’re not great at being subtle,” quips one person who helps Starmer prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions). From describing Johnson and Sunak as “the Tory Thelma and Louise”, and on 9 February as “the loan shark Chancellor and his unwitting sidekick”, Labour is keeping the Chancellor in its sights even as Johnson dominates the story. So is the opposition already working on the assumption that Sunak, currently the most popular politician in the country, will be the next Conservative leader?
Those close to Starmer have believed for months that Sunak isn’t ready. His “David Miliband moment”, in which he unsubtly distanced himself from Johnson’s Jimmy Savile comments but failed to move against the Prime Minister, proved them right, they believe. Labour figures now wonder if Sunak has missed his opportunity. And in common with many Conservative MPs, they also believe that recent weeks have proved the Chancellor a less capable political operator than they previously thought.
Some in Labour suspect that the Chancellor has deliberately chosen to lumber Johnson with an unpopular, ineffective policy in the form of the £200 energy loan scheme. “He thinks that he’s being clever getting this policy through, damaging Johnson with it and then sailing in later with a tax cut further down the line,” one Labour source suspects.
But the opposition sees this as a huge miscalculation, and is determined to ensure that the policy damages Sunak too (hence Starmer’s attack on “the loan shark Chancellor”). “It’s a bad policy,” said someone close to the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. “We looked at it, we considered it; our [policy] is just better and it tests better with the public.” (Labour has proposed a windfall tax on oil and gas companies to cut bills by up to £600 for households.) Sunak’s policy is just one among several that has led those close to Starmer to conclude that the Chancellor is “crap at politics, frankly”.
This means they believe Sunak is now less likely to succeed Johnson, and are also less worried if he does. The most common word that Labour figures use to describe the Chancellor is “vain”. They believe he makes political miscalculations – such as writing a long Twitter thread to rebut Reeves, which only served to amplify her criticisms – because he is self-regarding, inexperienced and sensitive, and hasn’t been in politics long enough to develop a thick skin. The self-regard implied by those glossy, signed graphics and photographs of Sunak is another bruise Labour thinks it can punch.
Sunak, who is married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire (NR Narayana Murthy) and who ran his own hedge fund, is not only the wealthiest UK MP but possibly the wealthiest there has ever been. “I don’t think that people will care that he’s got lots of money,” said one Labour figure. But the opposition believe that, with time, Sunak’s distance from the reality of money for ordinary people will result in further political blunders.
Labour figures also whisper that wealth is often associated with questionable tax practises. While there is no suggestion that Sunak or his wife are involved in tax avoidance, the party hopes that, with the latter’s wealth tied up in so many ventures, the issue will eventually become a political headache.
[See also: The rise of high-tax Britain]
Labour’s plan to win the next general election revolves around the economy, which means targeting Sunak whether he is chancellor or prime minister. Starmer and Reeves work in lockstep, and it is their shared belief that Labour will only win if it surpasses the Tories on economic credibility. They have a three-pronged approach. Their first priority is to highlight the cost-of-living crisis and what they regard as the government’s inept response: the “Thelma and Louise” line targeted the National Insurance rise, while the “loan shark” line attacked the energy “rebate”. Labour’s second priority is to advance the argument that the Conservatives are a party of fraud and waste and poor custodians of the economy. Its third is to promote its own positive message: that Labour would promote growth, rather than implementing policies that create the low-growth and increasingly high-tax economy we have under the Conservatives.
Labour, like the rest of the country, doesn’t know what will happen to Johnson or whether Sunak will become prime minister. But its strategy involves attacking him either way.
Labour thinks it is ready for a Rishi Sunak premiership. One figure close to Starmer points to an amusing statistic from the US – that the taller presidential candidate tends to win (a statistic overcome in the UK by Margaret Thatcher). Both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson are shorter in person than they appear on television, at roughly the same height of 5ft 8in. But the Labour leader is taller than the diminutive Chancellor (5ft 6in). “So bring on little Rishi,” said a senior Labour figure with a grin.