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Paul Vallely: Rishi Sunak is down — but not yet out  

07 June 2024

Keir Starmer needs to set out his party’s plans more clearly, writes Paul Vallely


Rishi Sunak at an election campaign event at Alfredian Park, home of Wantage Town Football Club, on Monday

Rishi Sunak at an election campaign event at Alfredian Park, home of Wantage Town Football Club, on Monday

THE General Election campaign finally got interesting this week. The early days were characterised by a curious inversion of the usual stereotypes — as Labour presented itself as a safe pair of hands with the economy, and the Conservatives prestidigitated a succession of uncosted eye-catching initiatives designed to persuade voters that things could only get better. But then came a series of what Harold Macmillan once called “events”.

Labour’s offer of stability, safety, and security — on the economy, the NHS, and nuclear weapons — underwent a bit of a wobble when Sir Keir Starmer botched his attempt to add Diane Abbott to the list of left-wingers whom he wanted to prevent from standing as Labour candidates. When it emerged that she had, months ago, completed the required online anti-Semitism awareness course, he stonewalled uncomfortably for 72 hours, before capitulating and getting his campaign back on track.

This unforced error made a gift to the senior Tory, Jeremy Hunt, of the jibe: “If Keir Starmer can’t deal with Diane Abbott, how on earth is he going to deal with Vladimir Putin?”

But Mr Hunt himself was the subject of the next wobble when the highly respected Survation poll predicted that he and 11 other Cabinet ministers were about to lose their seats — as Labour was projected to win 422 seats, and the Tories just 140, in the biggest landslide for a century.

This was despite Rishi Sunak’s cavalcade of random enticements to the grey vote — dangling the return of National Service (31 May), tax breaks for pensioners, caps on immigrant visas, and a common-sense declaration that gender is assigned at birth rather than acquired through self-identification.

None of this, the polling analyst Sir John Curtice said, outweighed voters’ inability to forgive the Conservatives for Boris Johnson’s partying through Covid, or Liz Truss’s sending mortgages soaring in her Kami-Kwasi Budget. Voters are not forgetting 14 years of Conservative government. No leader has ever called an election from 20 points behind and won.

On top of all that, enter, stage right, Nigel Farage of Reform UK, announcing his eighth attempt to become an MP.

Last time, in 2019, of course, he withdrew his Brexit Party candidates in seats that the Conservatives were defending, and helped Mr Johnson to an 80-seat majority. This time, Mr Farage is declaring war on the Conservatives for their “breach of trust”. A Labour victory is inevitable, he says, and the Tories can no longer constitute even an effective Opposition. So, he has told voters, “Send me to Parliament to be a bloody nuisance.”

Mr Farage may be circling like a vulture over what he hopes is the dying corpse of the Conservative Party. But it seems far too early to declare a Labour victory. In the first televised debate between the two men on Tuesday evening, Sir Keir’s reassuringly dull, bank-manager persona was no match for Mr Sunak’s punchy performance, in which he repeatedly talked over the Labour leader.

There is another problem. The Starmer camp is intent on proving to the nation that its man is the grown-up in the room, the only one who can be trusted with the keys to the family car. But, in that first debate, he didn’t really give us much idea of where — should he, indeed, get behind the wheel — he would be driving us.

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