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3 March 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 1:06pm

Keir Starmer’s Budget response was the speech he wanted to make weeks ago

In responding to Rishi Sunak's Budget, the Labour leader advanced the argument that he hopes will carry his party to victory.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer faced a new opponent today: Rishi Sunak. “After 11 months in this job it’s nice finally to be standing opposite the person actually making decisions in this government,” the Labour leader joked, as he began his response to the Chancellor’s Budget. It was there at the very start of Starmer’s speech: a concerted effort to associate Sunak, currently the most popular politician in the country, with some of the worst decisions taken by the Conservative government in recent months.

The Labour leader is only too aware that it’s not impossible he’ll be facing the Chancellor again, not just at another Budget, put potentially at Prime Minister’s Questions, and as his opponent at the next general election. It’s essential for Labour going forward that it manages to puncture some of Sunak’s personal popularity and to associate him with Boris Johnson’s legacy. 

[Hear more from Ailbhe on the New Statesman podcast]

With that in mind, Starmer’s response to the Budget was peppered with jokes and attacks on Brand Rishi: jibes about the Chancellor’s photographer budget, his Instagram presence, his desire to do a “victory lap”, all gently needling at the idea that the Chancellor does not understand normal people’s concerns, and the real pain and uncertainty they have faced during the pandemic.

Starmer reminded viewers of Sunak’s role in decisions that are too often attributed to the Prime Minister alone, such as the Chancellor’s known opposition to a circuit break lockdown in September, and the Chancellor’s delays in confirming extensions to various support schemes throughout the crisis, increasing economic uncertainty. Starmer said that the Chancellor “had been dragged, kicking and screaming” to extend to the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, after weeks without clarity as to whether it would continue. (There was, notably, no mention of Eat Out to Help Out, which Labour is unable to attack having supported it at the time.)

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The Labour leader highlighted areas on which the Chancellor was notably silent, such as the NHS and a plan for social care, and raised yet again some of the “glaring holes” in the economic underpinning of our public health response: the low level of statutory sick pay, which means some people can’t afford to self-isolate with coronavirus, and the inaccessibility of the isolation payment. 

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But the main thread of Starmer’s Budget response was to build on the argument that he outlined in a major speech on 18 February: more than a decade of Conservative rule left the British economy in a weak position going into the pandemic, and the Tories wouldn’t be the right party to help it recover. The Labour leader talked about “a decade of neglect” that led to high levels of insecure work, stagnant wages and more than four million children living in poverty. It was all woven around the same theme: that Sunak didn’t have a plan for the long-term, didn’t mention inequality, didn’t mention social care, and didn’t go far enough on social security or on the climate emergency.

It had been widely reported that the Budget would contain an increase in corporation tax, which Labour had already been clear it wouldn’t support at this point. As a pillar of its efforts to project economic responsibility, it’s the clear view of Anneliese Dodds and the shadow Treasury team that cuts or tax increases now would choke economic recovery, and economic orthodoxy tends to agree. But when Sunak did announce the rise in corporation tax from 19 per cent to 25 per cent, he revealed that it will come into effect in 2023, bringing the Conservative position broadly into line with Labour’s view that corporation tax (among the lowest in the G20) should eventually be raised. Starmer successfully fudged his response to this unexpected aspect of Sunak’s speech, because, luckily for the Labour leader, if not for local services, the government is still introducing increases in council tax.  

“We know he’s itching to get back to his free-market principles and to pull away support as quickly as he can,” the Labour leader concluded. “One day these restrictions will end. One day we’ll all be able to take our masks off – and so will the Chancellor. And then you’ll see who he really is – and this Budget sets it up perfectly. Because this is a Budget that didn’t even attempt to rebuild the foundations of our economy.”

It is rare that politicians on opposite sides want to be having the same argument. We spent the 2019 general election campaign watching Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party try, and fail, to have a debate about the NHS, while Boris Johnson’s Conservatives successfully turned the election into a question about Brexit. As Stephen Bush set out, normally politics is a struggle over which public debate we have, or which question voters are being asked on election day, and the side that wins on that, tends to win outright. But in this case, Sunak and Starmer are itching to have the same debate, about the condition the British economy was in going into the coronavirus pandemic after a decade of Conservative rule, and about which party would be better equipped to handle the recovery. They can’t both be right: framing the debate this way will only work for one of them. 

But Starmer believes that it will work for him, and for Labour. The response to the Budget today gave him a platform to set out the same bigger picture argument that he outlined in February, and will be continuing to make until the next election: that coronavirus has revealed the cracks in British society that were caused and exacerbated by Conservative ideology, and Labour is the party to fix them.

Given the difficulty of responding to an incredibly popular Chancellor in spending mode in a crisis, Labour will be happy that its leader found a way of using it to advance his party’s case for the years ahead. Starmer’s speech in February flopped in the eyes of many commentators and didn’t have much cut-through: today those arguments got the hearing that they didn’t get the first time.