As we inch closer to a general election, the attack lines are shaping up. Over the weekend, we repeatedly heard the latest Conservative Party Headquarters line peddled by Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and Tory chair Richard Holden: “Don’t let Starmer take us back to square one”.
As the party battles devastating approval ratings, it is becoming increasingly desperate to persuade voters that they are the safest option for voters.
But what does the Conservative Party’s so-called “square one under Starmer” actually look like?
As the Conservative Party battles devastating approval ratings, it is becoming increasingly desperate to persuade voters that they are the safest option for voters
The battle over migration has been playing out in front of us for months now, so it’s already clear where both parties are positioning themselves.
The Tories want to get the Rwanda scheme off the ground to “Stop the Boats”, while Starmer has dubbed the scheme a “gimmick” – instead arguing for a returns deal with the EU and collaboration on policing to get to the root of the criminal smuggling gangs fuelling the boat crossings.
But the most important factor – which will determine the shape of this conversation come election time – is yet to be decided. And that is the success of the Rwanda plan itself.
Labour has pledged to reverse the Rwanda scheme if he gets the keys to No 10 – even if it’s working.
This makes the stakes extremely high. If the scheme is working, it’s an easy election attack line for Sunak.
They can argue that Starmer will take the UK “back to square one”. But if the Rwanda scheme is fails – or is still “in development” – the argument about migration will be much more hypothetical – and it will be much easier for Labour to win points on an issue which sits at the centre of Sunak’s personal manifesto.
Energy Security and net zero
When it comes to energy security and net zero, the Tories have begun their mission to persuade voters that Starmer will sacrifice the UK’s national security in his mission to reach net zero.
Starmer has pledged #28 billion towards green investment, alongside a ban on new oil and gas licences in the North Sea.
While the Labour Party is trying to pitch itself as the green option – the only party that will successfully look after the transition to net zero – the Tories are playing on fears of global instability.
They are arguing that any failure to boost the UK’s energy production would compromise national security – as it makes the UK more vulnerable to exploitation by oil-rich dictators, like Vladimir Putin – as the nation is more reliant on energy that comes from abroad.
Last week’s warning from Gary Smith, the general secretary of the GMB union, that Starmer’s ban on new North Sea oil drilling would undermine national security will only serve as a boost to Sunak on this battleground.
In an Op-Ed for the Sun this weekend, Sunak dubbed the £28billion pledge a “spending spree that would take us back to square one”.
He added: “Starmer can’t say how he is going to pay for this spending — which is twice what we spend on the police in England — because he doesn’t have a plan.
“And because he doesn’t have a plan for how to pay for it, he would have to put up your taxes to cover the costs.”
The Conservatives are running a mile with the pledge because not only does it play into concerns about Net Zero and energy security – but it also allows them to attack Labour on the economy.
The two parties have found themselves converging when it comes to public finances, as Labour shifts to the centre in order to become a more electable force. Meanwhile, the Tories found themselves shifting to the left as the country continues to claw its way back from a turbulent few years.
As a result of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, public finances have ended up tighter than ever – and taxes have climbed up as a result. With taxation at its highest level since post-World War II, it is no surprise that both parties are promising cuts.
But in this weekend’s Op-Ed, Sunak made the Conservatives’ attack line clear. “Tax cuts with me or tax rises with Starmer”, he said.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Tories plan to fight the economic battle on the idea of Labour being “fiscally irresponsible”.
The closer the country gets to an election, the louder the Conservative Party will get when it argues that Starmer cannot be trusted – and Sunak’s attack on Starmer’s green pledges does exactly that.
Promising harsh welfare cuts at the next election makes it much easier for the Conservatives to ask: “Where will Starmer get the money from?” And given the extremely turbulent fiscal situation that ex-PM Liz Truss left the economy in, the party is desperate to make this argument as loudly as possible in order to distract from very real concerns about its own record.
Starmer is yet to commit to much policy detail when it comes to tax cuts and public spending, but every proposal they have put forward they have caveated with the promise that it will be fully costed and comply with fiscal rules. But even when detailed economic policy is published in a Labour manifesto come election time, it is very likely that the Conservatives’ rhetoric on this aspect of the debate will remain unchanged.