Starmer and Sunak Trade Jibes as Rivals Zone In on Target Voters

Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer mocked Rishi Sunak’s plan to revive national service for young Britons if his Conservatives cling to power, as the rivals used a UK bank holiday to campaign in two areas that underscored the very different challenges they face in the July 4 election.

Bloomberg
First Published27 May 2024
Starmer and Sunak Trade Jibes as Rivals Zone In on Target Voters
Starmer and Sunak Trade Jibes as Rivals Zone In on Target Voters

(Bloomberg) -- Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer mocked Rishi Sunak’s plan to revive national service for young Britons if his Conservatives cling to power, as the rivals used a UK bank holiday to campaign in two areas that underscored the very different challenges they face in the July 4 election.

Starmer, whose party has held a lead of about 20 points in the polls for well over a year, used a speech in Lancing on England’s southern coast to urge voters to trust Labour on the economy and national security. He promised to fix what he called the “chaos” of 14 years of Tory government and said Sunak’s national service idea is emblematic of his habit of sudden policy shifts.

“A sort of teenage Dad’s Army,” was Starmer’s description, a reference to a British sitcom from the 1970s about a bumbling group of volunteers in the Home Guard, a citizen military group during World War II. 

Starmer was delivering his first keynote speech of the general election, and his destination choice was telling. The East Worthing and Shoring constituency has been held by the Conservatives since the parliamentary seat was created in 1997, but outgoing Tory MP Tim Loughton’s victory margin of 14% five years ago makes it a target for Starmer’s party as it chases a majority in Parliament.

It’s why Starmer focused largely on Britain’s undecided voters in his speech, a type of introduction about his upbringing and political beliefs. He said he’s changed Labour since taking over from his socialist predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, who led the party to an historic defeat in 2019.

“Elections are about more than individual changes and policies, but about values, temperament, character,” Starmer said.

He accused Sunak of “desperation” over the national service plan, which the premier has not made a priority so far in office. Starmer said the Tories would pay for it of taking funding out of communities and the National Health Service.

Sunak hit back as he campaigned in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, saying his policy would boost security and make British society “more cohesive.” He repeated his stock attack on Starmer having “no idea, no plan.”

“It is bold, but that’s the kind of leadership I offer,” Sunak said.

But the policy and Sunak’s choice of campaign venue underscore that the prime minister doesn’t speak from a position of strength. Conservative MPs including Steve Baker have spoken out already about a plan which appears aimed at stopping the leak of votes from the Tory right flank to the populist Reform UK.

Polls show that any support that does exist for reintroducing national service is concentrated among older voters, who the Conservatives consider their core support. Tory MPs have spent months warning that a resurgent Reform UK could cost the Conservative Party dozens of seats by splitting the right-leaning vote.

At the same time, Sunak’s appearance in Buckinghamshire showed that along with the Reform threat on the Tory right, the Conservatives face a fight in their traditional Blue Wall heartland from the centrist Liberal Democrats. 

Chesham and Amersham had been held by the Tories since it was created in 1974 before it unexpectedly switched to the Liberal Democrats in a special election in 2021, a seismic political upset that came to be seen as an early warning sign of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s subsequent downfall. 

Sunak was brought in as leader in large part to fix the Tories’ slide in the polls that began under Johnson and went into freefall under Liz Truss. He’s failed to do so, and that’s left the prime minister forced to try to shore up support in what should be safe territory just days into the campaign.

The Liberal Democrats are targeting Tory strongholds in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire to the northwest and north of the capital, in Surrey to the south, as well as in areas where they have been previously been strong in southwest England. 

That has left senior Tories, many in Liberal Democrat-facing areas, worried about starring in a new “Portillo” moment on election night, the nickname for a when a Tory big beast loses a safe seat after Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo lost Enfield Southgate in the Tony Blair-led Labour whitewash of 1997.

Many including Michael Gove have decided not to risk it, and Sunak has battled a slew of Tory resignations that have undermined the start of his campaign. Just as he has since taking office in October 2022, the prime minister is now trying to find political messaging that works for the political right and center.

He suffered another setback in Telford, central England, when outgoing Conservative MP Lucy Allan said she planned to support Reform UK’s candidate in the seat. Sunak’s party responded by kicking her out of the Tory party.

The opening campaign days have so far proved smoother for Starmer, who made light of Tory attacks about his age and stamina overnight. 

“I’ve had a smile on my face since January 1, 2024 because I knew this was going to be an election year,” Starmer, 61, said in Lancing. “I’ve wasted nine years of my life in opposition. I’ve worked four-and-a-half years to change this Labour Party, and now I’ve got the chance to take that to the country.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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