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26 February 2024

The Tories’ self-destruction is a gift to Labour

Conservative divisions are helping to keep Keir Starmer’s party’s lead solid even as it endures its own woes.

By Freddie Hayward

So where are we? The Budget is next week. We have the Rochdale by-election on Thursday, where George Galloway could return to the national scene. The Tory party remains furiously divided. Red Wall MPs are irritated that No 10 has suspended Lee Anderson for saying Islamists are controlling Sadiq Khan. Liz Truss has been gallivanting around America with Donald Trump’s Rasputin, Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, aspiring Tory leaders vie for the right-wing vote through columns in the Daily Telegraph.

All of which is occurring while threats against MPs are increasing. The Sunday Times reported that three female MPs now need bodyguard protection. Beneath the parliamentary minutiae, the threats faced by MPs – and how this impacts their votes – was the key story last week. Parliament is not, therefore, calm.

Yet Labour is doing well. Despite the behind-the-scenes anxiety over its ability to take decisive action (consider the agonising events surrounding the cancellation of the £28bn green prosperity fund, suspending Azhar Ali in Rochdale, and the Gaza vote) Labour’s polling lead remains solid. Each day piles more pressure on the “polls always close before an election” narrative. I’d put this partly down to the Tories’ exceptional ability to snatch the limelight by courting controversy or launching into civil combat.

The deluge of bad news about the country does not help, either. Westminster cannot stop asking whether it is 1997 or 1992. But neither comparison captures how Birmingham can no longer afford to keep the street lights on. Throw in the recession, and the candlelit campaign of February 1974 becomes a better analogy.

National decay is one reason why the government’s various bribes are not working. Rishi Sunak has bussed his cabinet to THE NORTH today to re-announce money for the regions in recompense for cancelling the HS2 rail line. While filling in potholes is an important job, it is unlikely to resolve decades of transport inequality, nor keep Sunak in No 10.

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Which brings us to the heavily briefed tax-cutting Budget. There’s a similar sleight of hand taking place here: cuts in some places, while taxes in general are rising. The size of those tax cuts depends on how much “fiscal headroom” the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic projections allow.

There are, therefore, three important ways to think about the Budget. First, the current fiscal framework makes long-term, serious policy decisions impossible. Jeremy Hunt’s room for manoeuvre is dependent on the many fickle and imperfect data points that feed into the government’s economic forecasts. Second, the Tories are forcing Labour on to the back foot. Rachel Reeves will, yet again, have to decide whether to sacrifice the fiscal position she inherits – by supporting the tax cuts – in order to preserve Labour’s reputation for not rinsing working people. Third, the desire to reduce the tax burden is storing up huge spending cuts down the line, compounding national decay.

So where are we? The Tories are down. Labour is up. You might get a National Insurance cut in a week’s time. Just don’t expect to see where you’re walking at night.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Liz Truss is lost in her own contradictions]

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