As the chief economist of the Bank of England sparked fury among voters by appearing to tell them they “need to accept” that they’re poorer, Keir Starmer began the sparring at Prime Minister’s Questions with Rishi Sunak‘s weak spot: the economy.
The Labour leader opened with comments from the Tory former chancellor George Osborne that Liz Truss’s handling of the economy amounted to the government becoming “political vandals”, then focused in on the fall in living standards. Starmer made jab after jab at the Prime Minister, calling him “removed” and “insulated”, cracking a joke that Sunak was “so out of touch that he looked at a petrol pump and a debit card like it just arrived from Mars”.
Starmer came armed with facts and stats and he struck the right balance between sound-bite attacks and broader analysis. Several times he repeated that the average family income has fallen £1,600 per household. He pointed to the 24 tax rises that the Conservatives had introduced, the impact on working families, the cost-of-living crisis and the government’s refusal to scrap non-dom status or implement a thorough windfall tax. He pre-empted the defence that Britain’s economic woes come from “one week of madness last autumn” under Truss, stating plainly: “The truth is it’s been 13 years of failure.”
Sunak was quicker this week to defend Conservative policy, and he maintained the enthusiasm of a man with his party behind him. But at times he was drowned out by laughter from the opposition benches and his usual attacks seemed clumsy and disconnected from Starmer’s questions. Sunak tried to turn the focus onto Labour’s weak spot, claiming the opposition was on the side of protesters, people-smugglers and picketers. Labour is the “same old” party, Sunak declared, with promises of “more spending, more borrowing and higher inflation”. But with 13 years of Tory economic responsibility hanging over the Prime Minister, this argument felt flimsy.
Starmer was lively as he attacked Sunak’s Westminster “bubble”, dubbing him “out of touch” and making multiple references to non-dom status. He was barely phased by Sunak’s attempts to put Labour on the back foot and refused to engage with the tit-for-tat that characterised last week’s PMQs. This move proved effective, and led Sunak to make a few lapses in judgement. “He could scrap his beloved non-dom status and put that money back in the hands of working people,” Starmer said, as he laid the groundwork for an attack on Sunak’s own personal finances. In response, Sunak let slip his cavalier attitude toward taxation by referencing Starmer’s comments as “this non-dom thing”, as if tax breaks were an immaterial matter.
When Starmer said that Sunak had put up working people’s taxes across the country so “his could stay low”, Sunak retorted that rich people pay more tax now than any time under the previous Labour government, which could easily backfire with the true-blue Tory voter base.
The leader of the opposition had regained his coolness this week. Labour knows that, despite everything, most voters will be voting with their pocket at the local elections next week. This means that, unfortunately for Sunak, the Conservatives’ economic track record is an all too easy target.
[See also: The dark heart of the Tory party]