Sir Keir Starmer on Wednesday faced new prime minister Rishi Sunak across the despatch box for the first time, as Labour confronted a new Tory leader already recognised by the opposition party as a threat.
Sunak was feisty and combative on his Prime Minister’s Questions debut, cheered on by Conservative MPs in high spirits after months of watching his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss floundering in the chamber.
Starmer warned the shadow cabinet on Tuesday morning that Labour’s lead of better than 30 points in the polls over recent weeks would now shrink following Sunak’s appointment.
Labour figures have been thrilled at how the party’s polling performance during Truss’s 44-day premiership had climbed to levels not seen since the early 1990s, raising the prospect of a thumping victory at the next general election.
But with Truss gone — and financial markets stabilised — the opposition’s task has become more difficult, as Starmer acknowledged. One Labour grandee said the party regarded Sunak as “solid, technocratic and diligent”.
Sunak, seen as a skilful communicator, is — according to pollsters YouGov — less unpopular than Johnson and Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, who both challenged him for the Tory leadership.
“He is going to get a double bounce: the usual new prime minister bounce plus the one Liz Truss managed to bungle,” Starmer told his shadow front bench this week. “No complacency, no caution, no letting up.”
Starmer’s team has been drawing up a plan to tackle Sunak, who is not only the youngest but also the richest UK prime minister of modern times. The public see him as “hardworking, competent and decisive, but also out of touch”, according to YouGov.
During the shadow cabinet meeting, the Labour leader pointed out that Sunak had only ever fought one proper leadership battle and had been “thrashed” by Truss. “No wonder he doesn’t want to fight a general election,” he added.
But, Starmer added, Sunak was “ruthless” when necessary, saying that he had “stabbed Boris Johnson in the back” in order to succeed him as prime minister. “He will now try and disown the Tory record of recent years and recent months and pretend that he is a new broom.”
Shadow ministers are likely to criticise Sunak for his decision when chancellor to uprate benefits by 3.1 per cent in April, against a backdrop of soaring inflation, and for raising the threshold for employee national insurance contributions, a policy that was cancelled by Truss.
Labour will also argue that some of Sunak’s more popular policies at the Treasury were only introduced after pressure from the opposition, for example, the Covid-19 furlough scheme to support workers during the pandemic.
“He’s just not very good at politics,” said a senior Labour strategist, who added Sunak had been “dragged kicking and screaming” to parliament to announce a cost of living support package.
“He also struggled to realise that a windfall tax would be popular, It took four months after Labour first came up with the idea before he did it himself,” they said.
Starmer on Wednesday reminded MPs that Sunak had told Tory activists in August that he had ripped up Labour’s funding formulas to shift money from deprived areas to wealthy Tory seats like Tunbridge Wells.
What is not clear is to what extent Labour will pursue Sunak over his significant wealth — a mix of his wife Akshata Murthy’s inherited money and his own successful career in the financial sector working at Goldman Sachs and for hedge funds.
Other attacks from the opposition may be more tangential. One shadow minister alleged that Sunak’s children could be benefiting from Tory government tax breaks for private schools.
According to Joe Twyman, director of consultancy Deltapoll, the public has been more concerned about the revelation that Sunak’s wife was previously claiming non-domiciled tax status than the couple’s wealth alone.
“The rich issue is interesting. People have trouble dealing with big numbers. If you have one politician worth £5mn and then another at £750mn, many people just think . . . he’s richer than me,” he said.
Darren Jones, Labour chair of the business select committee, argued that the public were more interested in how Sunak would repair the “damage” of 12 years of successive Conservative governments.
“I actually don’t think the British public are that interested in Rishi Sunak’s wealth or the expense of his coffee cups or the design of his flip-flops,” he said.
He added that he thought Britons would care more about his wife’s previous non-dom status “and the fact that he had a United States green card”.