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28 March 2023

Would Rishi Sunak win a fight over competence?

Labour advisers fear the Conservatives have the crucial advantage of actually being able to do things.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak is taking us back to the Noughties, when it was fashionable to scorn teenagers in parks and asylum seekers in the Channel. The Prime Minister’s pitch to the electorate is a combination of competent government and harsh rhetoric on emotive policies such as immigration and crime. His latest gambit is antisocial behaviour (yet another example of Westminster approaching a consensus, on problems if not values). The proposals include giving landlords the power to evict noisy and disruptive tenants within two weeks. One for the youth vote.

Will this strategy work? Fight on competence and, as one Labour adviser cautioned recently, the Conservatives have the upper hand. Being in government, they can do more than make promises. They can actually do things. “Look, here we are passing laws to stop the boats crossing the Channel.” The opposition is left lodging parliamentary questions and chewing over its slogans.

Being in power can also be a hindrance. Pointing at migrants might not cut it. Voters need only lift their eyes to a train station display or break an arm or visit Dover to acquaint themselves with the government’s relationship to competence. Things may have improved under the latest regime, but how does the government unburden itself of the past thirteen years?

More importantly, for the Conservatives to lose, Labour must win. The question occupying some in Labour is whether to apply that to immigration. Does the party need to win on the issue or simply not lose? One shadow minister expressed concern to me that Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, is so infatuated with law and order that she cedes the issue of immigration to the Conservatives. Her performances in the Commons when the bill is under debate have certainly been withering. But she leaves her attack in parliament – one for the press gallery, not the voters. Which does Labour want to convince?

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