While Rishi Sunak was being formally invited to form a government by the King, Labour’s shadow cabinet was working on its strategy to take on the new Tory prime minister.
The 1992 general election, at which Labour’s Neil Kinnock was roundly defeated by John Major despite the divisiveness of Margaret Thatcher, looms large in Keir Starmer’s mind. He has grown increasingly impatient with MPs excitedly sharing opinion polls that show the party 30 points ahead on various WhatsApp groups, his allies say. Starmer believes a new administration in Downing Street means a general election could be as far as two years away. He has warned his team to “ignore the noise” and be disciplined. “No complacency, no caution, no letting up,” he warned shadow ministers.
The clash between Starmer and Sunak at PMQs on Wednesday (26 October) will provide a first glimpse of what the next election will be fought over. But how will Labour frame its new opponent?
A Tory refresh is a threat to Labour’s popularity. The opposition has benefited from the chaotic and negligent leadership of, first, Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss, which has angered the public during a cost-of-living crisis. Labour sources are predicting “a double-poll bounce” for the Conservatives under Sunak, consisting of “the usual new prime minister bounce – plus the one Liz Truss managed to bungle”.
Sunak faces high expectations in the wake of Johnson and Truss, but a deeply damaged economy. His unenviable task is to impose an unappealing mix of tax rises and spending cuts on the public to steady the economy.
Starmer opened the shadow cabinet meeting by welcoming the significance of Sunak becoming Britain’s first Asian PM. But he wasted no time in cracking a joke about how insulated the Tory leader had been from political warfare, telling shadow ministers it was “no wonder” Sunak wanted to avoid a snap general election since “he has only ever fought one leadership election battle his entire life, and got thrashed by Liz Truss”. Meanwhile, he gave his team permission to paint Sunak as a “ruthless” careerist who puts “party first and the country second”.
The new PM has already provided the opposition with ammunition. One example is the now-infamous video, leaked to the New Statesman, in which Sunak boasted to Tory members in Tunbridge Wells, Kent during the summer leadership election that he redistributed public funding from “deprived urban areas” to affluent towns such as theirs.
Sunak is married to Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy, the founder of Infosys. The couple came under fire when it emerged Akshata had non-dom tax status, which allowed her to avoid UK tax on her foreign earnings.
But there was broad agreement among shadow ministers not to attack the multi-millionaire PM’s wealth (estimated at £730m), according to one source who claimed “stereotypical” class warfare could backfire. They added: “You can’t attack him for being rich but you can say he is prepared to take decisions in the interests of the rich.”
Labour MPs are also now permitted to lean into the narrative, first deployed by the Johnson loyalist and former culture secretary Nadine Dorries in July, that Sunak “stabbed Boris Johnson in the back” to get his job. “Rishi Sunak stabbed Boris Johnson in the back when he thought he could get his job,” Starmer repeated. “And in the same way, he will now try and disown the Tory record of recent years and recent months and pretend that he is a new broom.”
But the Labour leader wants his shadow ministers’ main focus to be the economy. He said that MPs should block any attempt by Sunak to hide from his record as chancellor.
Starmer’s approach does have its critics. One source said Sunak’s election blunted Labour’s approach of appearing sensible and centrist, which worked best against Johnson and Truss, and believed that the leadership should pivot to offering something more radical.
But as the UK teeters on the brink of a recession, Starmer believes Labour’s time is best spent mercilessly targeting what Sunak did while chancellor, which ended with the slowest growth of the G7, sky-high inflation and “millions of people worried about their bills”.