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PMQs review: Starmer lays a Truss trap for Sunak

The Prime Minister cannot flush his predecessor away – and Labour is taking advantage.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Is a trap still a trap if you can see it coming but have no choice but to stumble into it anyway? That’s the question posed by today’s boisterous post-recess PMQs.

It’s only day three, but this week has already revealed bitter splits in the Conservative Party over Rishi Sunak’s flagship smoking bill, which will ban teenagers from ever buying tobacco products, with almost 170 Tory MPs choosing not to vote with the government. It’s also another big week for the contentious Rwanda bill, which is currently ping-ponging between the Lords and the Commons.

But Keir Starmer ignored all of that today to hone in on topic: the Tories’ record on the economy.

In this, he was determined to make the most of the gift handed to Labour in the form of Liz Truss’s new book, Ten Years to Save the West. Sunak’s predecessor has been on a frenetic media tour defending her 49 days in office and offering a host of helpful suggestions such as sacking the governor of the Bank of England and abolishing the UN. What, Starmer wanted to know, did the Prime Minister make of Truss’s admission that the mini-Budget that sparked market turmoil was her “happiest moment as prime minister”?

Truss is an awkward subject for Sunak. There is no love lost between the pair: her narrative is that the PM and his allies betrayed her, while he clearly feels vindicated that his warnings during the 2022 party leadership contest about the danger of her plans proved so accurate. You could see Sunak struggling not to sound smug as he rushed to explain that he had spoken out against her. “Everyone knows that two years ago I wasn’t afraid to warn about what her economic policies would lead to even if it wasn’t what people wanted to hear at the time,” he insisted.

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This is true, but it’s something Sunak has been very reluctant to draw attention to lately. Openly trashing her exacerbates the divisions in the party (Truss was one of the Conservative rebels to speak against the smoking bill) and solidifies the sense that the Tory party is fracturing.

And, indeed, he tried to change subjects as quickly as possible – to the topic of Angela Rayner’s tax affairs, which Starmer must have known was coming and met with a jab about tax-dodging Tories smearing a working-class woman. As the Labour leader dug into his narrative about Truss and the “unfunded tax cuts” that “crashed the economy” and sent mortgage rates rocketing, Sunak brought out the usual counter-attack of Starmer serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet (more relevant this week than usual, given the situation in the Middle East).

So far, so predictable. But then came the trap. Starmer wanted to talk about the “£46bn of unfunded tax cuts” – a reference to the prospect raised by Sunak and Jeremy Hunt after the Budget on 6 March of abolishing National Insurance completely. This suggestion was made in an offhand way following the 2p cut to National Insurance contributions (NIC), and framed as a vague ambition not a concrete plan. But big unfunded spending commitments can be damaging. Labour learned this the hard way: its pledge to spend £28bn a year on green investment proved such helpful ammunition for Conservatives trying to paint a picture of the opposition’s fiscal ineptitude that in the end the party had to drop it. Now, Starmer is trying the same trick against the Tories with an even bigger number.

Will it work? For over a year polls have shown Labour is more trusted on the traditionally Tory ground of the economy. That’s not a lead Starmer is willing to relinquish, and the £46bn figure is immensely helpful in that regard. His final three questions at PMQs today aimed to snare Sunak by asking how he intended to pay for it: by cuts to the NHS, cuts to pensions, or tax increases?

The Prime Minister, of course, deflected. He talked about raising NHS spending, protecting the triple lock on state pensions, and trumpeting the NIC cut. But with the spectre of Liz Truss haunting the Commons, the perils of unfunded tax cuts loom large and Sunak’s non-answer has its own dangers.

Labour will be able to say that Sunak had three chances to say how he would pay for his National Insurance plan, and still couldn’t do it. The fact this “plan” is never actually going to happen is irrelevant. It neutralises future Tory attacks on Labour profligacy, while linking Sunak’s agenda with the legacy of Truss.

A Labour attack ad broadcast this week epitomises the strategy and shows how dangerous Truss is for Sunak. It uses a clip of Truss from her book media tour saying she has “unfinished business”, implying that Sunak’s £46bn National Insurance cut is just an extension of her economic strategy. Sunak, who has tried to make economic competence part of his brand, will no doubt be furious. Truss’s book could not have come at a more unhelpful time.

[See also: The Angela Rayner tax row spells real danger for Labour]

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