For the last few months, everything has been looking rosy in the Labour garden, record polling leads, party unity and at long last a sense that Labour is a government in waiting.
However, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak poses a significantly different challenge to Starmer than his predecessors have. In his two-and-a-half-year tenure as Leader of the Opposition, Starmer’s attacks on the Government have primarily been focussed on the leadership and character of Boris Johnson. In the brief time he faced Truss, Starmer was able to use the economic instability and clear divergence in policy as an attack-line. However, with Sunak now in charge, Starmer’s team will need a new approach.
Voters see Sunak as polished, keen on detail and focussed; many of the attacks on Johnson or Truss won’t land on Sunak. While Labour have had a few years of facing him at the despatch box as Chancellor, Sunak’s new role has already seen him adopt a more confident, bold and bullish character – as shown in his first PMQs.
So what is Labour’s attack line now and will it land? Is it the fixed-penalty notice Sunak received over partygate? Is it his wealth and wife’s former non-dom tax status? Starmer’s advisers have been quick to point out that Labour is well-prepared and indeed has a stock of well-honed attack lines they will use against Sunak. Lobby hacks have even been briefed by Labour advisers that they believe they can draw a distinction in Starmer and Sunak’s characters, with Sunak as a “weird guy” attempting to present himself as slick and Starmer as a reliable “centrist dad”.
Initial indications suggest however, that attacks will be primarily focussed on how the Conservatives have prioritised party interests over those of the country, warning that working people will pay in tax rises and spending cuts for Tory mistakes. Starmer boldly tested some of these attacks at PMQs this week, even teasing that infamous Tunbridge Wells clip, however its blow was perhaps not as effective as LOTO would have hoped.
Behind the scenes, Starmer has been telling his Party not to lose sight of two key messages: firstly, that the Tories have been putting their “party first, and country second” and secondly, that the government “plans to make working people pay for their mistakes”. He has also been stressing that MPs and shadow ministers should “ignore the noise” if poll leads started to fall.
As expected, the Conservatives have already experienced a small gain in popularity in the polls – something expected when a new PM takes place – with some pundits suggesting Sunak may even benefit from a ‘double bounce’, taking into account Truss’ failure to materialise one. Political pollster Redfield & Wilton also has Sunak 1% ahead of Starmer on who the public believe would be the better Prime Minister.
This is nothing for Starmer and his team to worry about yet, with Labour’s current 30-point lead widely accepted as unsustainable and likely to decrease. The true test for Starmer, however, will be if Sunak manages a consistent crawl upwards in the polls while Labour stagnate or even lose points every few weeks.
Labour will be well aware of the need to move to on to an election-footing and start putting clear policies to the voters. Starmer will need to focus on the bleak picture the country is looking at – rising energy and food costs, stagnating wages, and increases in NHS waiting times – all the while painting the positive and contrasting vision a Labour Government would deliver.