The Labour leader and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are determined for the party to go into the next election campaign with a strong reputation for fiscal responsibility, and clearly see challenging their own side as part of that. So during this Commons exchange between Starmer and Rishi Sunak – the day before a crucial trio of by-elections – the Labour leader had his foot on the accelerator as he pressed the Prime Minister over what he called “magic money tree” NHS workforce plans.
The government’s blueprint pledges training for thousands more doctors and nurses over the next decade, and is not dissimilar to Labour’s plan, which the opposition has said will be paid for by scrapping the non-dom tax status. “Where’s the money coming from?” Starmer asked, ignoring Sunak’s attempts to challenge him over whether Labour thinks health unions should accept the government’s latest offer on NHS pay to end strikes.
These issues will be at the top of voters’ minds, after figures released this month showed NHS waiting lists have grown to almost 7.5 million.
The “magic money tree” attack was one Theresa May was fond of using against Labour, when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Now Starmer is seeking to turn the tables. Labour’s angle has also subtly changed. Where it used to berate Liz Truss’s “unfunded tax cuts”, now it criticises Rishi Sunak’s “unfunded spending commitments”.
Sunak responded that the government’s plan would be “fully funded” in the autumn statement, while Starmer gleefully claimed that Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, appeared “bewildered” by the claim.
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The PM tried to regain an advantage by claiming Labour MPs were “back on the picket line” with striking doctors and, as he has before, he tried to link Labour with Just Stop Oil protesters when he was asked again about NHS strikes and told Starmer to “stop taking inspiration from his friends outside and unglue himself from the fence”.
Sunak also accused Labour of spending the non-dom tax money on “five different things”, before joking that instead of recommending the study of maths to 18, it should stretch up to Starmer’s age of 61. This turned out to be a mistake, as Starmer pointed out: “I’m 60.”
Starmer moved on to ask the PM about the “40 new hospitals” pledged by his predecessor, Boris Johnson. A National Audit Office report this week found that the government will miss its target date of 2030. Starmer joked that “everything is going fine” with the plan “apart from the fact that there aren’t 40 of them […] and many of them aren’t hospitals”.
Sunak, who overall had a desperately difficult session, then tried to score a point by pointing out that Hillingdon Hospital, which serves Uxbridge (where one of the three by-elections is being held tomorrow), was being built but the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, meant some people would be charged £12.50 if they drove there for an appointment.
Meanwhile, the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, did not miss the opportunity to attack both the government and Labour over the two-child cap. This morning, the party sent all lobby journalists a mug not dissimilar to Ed Miliband’s infamous “controls on immigration” mug, replacing the words with “controls on family sizes” and asking, “what’s the point of Labour?”
Pointing to a Child Poverty Action Group estimate that the welfare restriction is keeping 250,000 children in poverty, he asked the Prime Minister if he would “take comfort” that Labour was keeping the policy.
Since the welfare cap is a Tory policy, Sunak had little choice but to welcome Starmer’s position, then claimed that the Labour leader does not keep promises. Flynn then borrowed a line from Harold Wilson as he turned to Starmer’s front bench and said “there is a shiver running along the Labour Party right now, looking for a spine”.
With Labour activists out knocking on the doors of Conservative voters, Starmer will no doubt welcome headlines about Labour’s tough stance on spending. Sunak, meanwhile, is probably happy that summer recess is almost here.