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26 July 2023

The Tories choose attack as the best form of defence

The Uxbridge by-election has set the summer’s political weather.

By David Gauke

We are at the point in summer when parliament has shut down and most of Westminster has disappeared to somewhere on the Mediterranean coast. Given the weather there, one might expect our sweltering politicians to return from their hols agitated about global warming. As it is, the political weather has been set by the voters of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

The Tories appear to have taken a lesson from their unexpected victory there: attack is the best form of defence. The Prime Minister has returned to the issue of asylum seekers and complained about what he is “up against”, namely: “The Labour Party, a subset of lawyers, criminal gangs… all on the same side, propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally.” Presumably this is designed to provoke outrage so that a row rumbles on about the extent to which the Labour Party is on the same side as “a subset of lawyers [and] criminal gangs”. Let us just say that it is not Rishi Sunak at his best, as Will Lloyd delved into yesterday.

The Prime Minister has also been busy on housing policy, with an article in yesterday’s Times (have we not had enough of Tory politicians writing columns?). Having abandoned national housing targets and then seen Labour make a convincing argument that this was a bad idea for economic growth, the Conservatives have responded with plans to increase the density of housing in cities, as well as expanding Cambridge.

[See also: Does Rishi Sunak have any shame?]

There was a time when a lot of hope was placed on the Oxford to Cambridge arc as a means of energising the British economy. But it clashed with the idea of levelling up and local residents were not universally enthusiastic about taking on the role of powering the country, thank you very much. I was always an enthusiast for the idea and tried to push it along when I was in the Treasury. The arc may not yet be back in fashion but expanding Cambridge is at least a genuinely pro-growth policy.

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As for Labour, it seems to have taken its defeat in Uxbridge rather badly. The party seems very cross with Sadiq Khan for expanding the Ultra Low Emission Zone. Khan isn’t going to drop the policy – as Anoosh Chakelian points out, he cannot afford to – which means we will soon be able to test the argument that these policies are always at their most unpopular just before they are implemented. What doesn’t make any sense is to delay its implementation so that it comes into force shortly before or after the London mayoral elections and/or general election. As Lewis Goodall has argued, it does not do Labour any good to look panicked.

Keir Starmer is of course right to be nervous not to give the Conservatives a stick with which to beat him, but he also needs to be aware that defusing every political risk is all very well in opposition but in government he cannot just echo public opinion. As I have written in these pages, the public knows that the country is in a hole but worries that our politicians cannot get us out of it. Starmer still has to show that he can lead public opinion, not just follow it.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: Tony Blair: “If I was back in front-line politics…”]

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