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11 April 2023

Labour’s Sunak adverts show Keir Starmer has finally decided to gamble

The Labour leader’s more aggressive advisers have won but the party has now invited counterattacks.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Over the last few days Labour’s controversial and aggressive attack advert tying Rishi Sunak to the government’s failures on crime have split the shadow cabinet. Some have refused to share the ad – which says, “Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison? Rishi Sunak doesn’t” – while others have welcomed a more strident approach to taking on the Tories.

Last night Keir Starmer told frontbenchers to get behind the campaign in a piece in the Daily Mail. He said: “I stand by every word Labour has said on the subject, no matter how squeamish it might make some feel.”

More personal attack ads in the same vein are planned for today, focusing on tax and the economy. The first will say: “Do you think it’s right to raise taxes for working people when your family benefitted from a tax loophole? Rishi Sunak does.”

Many within the party think it is vital to not let Sunak, as a relatively new Tory leader, off the hook for the government’s record and that the public outrage and internal controversy were a price worth paying. Few regret that the campaign has brought media attention to the issue of crime, which has become a focus for Labour. “It’s mission accomplished,” said one source. “We’ve dominated the news agenda and started a serious conversation about the Tories appalling record on crime.”

[See also: Will Labour’s stance on crime decide the next election?]

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Some characterise the ad campaign as the end of a war between the campaign team, led by Morgan McSweeney, and policy advisers to the shadow cabinet who advocated a more cautious approach. “There are splits, but I think some people have won,” said a source. “Or Morgan has won, to be blunt. There are divides but most people, including most of shadow cabinet, are powerless to change anything.”

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has been the target of much criticism in the party debates about the ads, which has convinced some people that she will be dismissed in a long-anticipated shadow cabinet reshuffle. Some insiders are also looking at polls showing Labour’s lead narrowing and anticipate a “vicious” election battle; they fear the party, which has not won an election since 2005, and particular members of the shadow cabinet are too timid.

Over the weekend sources said that Cooper “had nothing to do with” the ads and was not aware of them in advance, despite having overall responsibility for crime. Starmer’s Daily Mail article and warning to shadow ministers have been seen as a direct rebuke to all those uncomfortable with the new strategy, including Cooper.

The ads have not been a straightforward victory for those who want Labour to be on the front foot, however, as they have attracted criticism and scrutiny of Starmer’s own record as director of public prosecutions.

“[Labour strategists] will be happy because it’s created the row and made them look like Lynton Crosby,” said one adviser. “But it won’t work because we won’t win from the gutter – our biggest problem is not failing to attack Rishi, it’s lacking a positive alternative vision – and because dredging up past records won’t end well for Keir. The Tories will go to town with his DPP record.”

Labour is treating the local elections in May as a dry run for a general election expected in 2024. Starmer has decided it’s finally time to gamble.

[See also: Emily Thornberry: Jeremy Corbyn’s treatment is “very sad”]

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