Starmer Accuses Sunak of Lying With Tax Attack as UK Vote Sours

(Bloomberg) -- Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Rishi Sunak of “deliberate lies,” after the prime minister used the first TV debate of the UK election campaign to claim his poll-leading rival was planning to raise taxes.

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“He resorted to lies and deliberate lies, and I don’t say that lightly,” Starmer said in response to a Bloomberg question at a campaign event in Portsmouth. “As we go into the election, character matters — character really matters.”

A long-running row over tax plans ignited into a full Labour-Conservative spat when Sunak used Tuesday’s ITV debate to drive home his campaign line that a Starmer premiership would put up taxes on Britons by average £2,000 per house household. It’s a traditional Tory attack line in campaigns, but this time the party has said it is using “independent” analysis by Treasury officials.

Starmer dismissed the claim as “nonsense” but Sunak’s repeated use of the number appeared to work, as a snap poll showed viewers scored the prime minister ahead on tax — even as Starmer came out on top in other categories.

But Sunak’s numbers are heavily contested, given they derive from Treasury costings that were based on assumptions produced by Tory political aides. Labour hit back, producing a letter by the Treasury’s top civil servant James Bowler, who said the workings should not be attributed to the civil service.

“The big takeaway from last night is a flash of character from the prime minister,” Starmer said during a visit to a dockyard in Portsmouth, where he met veterans as part of commemorations to mark the D-Day anniversary.

“The choice today is even clearer than it was yesterday, between chaos and division and the failure of the last 14 years compounded now by the lies of Rishi Sunak — or turning the page and rebuilding with Labour,” he said.

The row, which comes two weeks since Sunak announced the election and four weeks out from polling day on July 4, is the first indication that the rival campaigns could be about to become far more bitter and hostile.

Trailing by over 20 points in most opinion polls, Sunak is under intense pressure to try to reverse his Tory party’s slumping fortunes. That dynamic lends itself to more fierce attacks, and Sunak’s go-to line on tax appeared to have been a long time in the making. Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt used a politically charged press conference last month to make the initial point. Moments after the debate finished on Tuesday, the Conservative Party sent out a fund-raising email making the same accusation against Labour.

The problem for Sunak is that Britain’s recent economic turmoil makes his arguments on tax harder to make. His government has put the UK’s overall tax burden on course for a postwar high, and a recent survey by polling firm More in Common found that Britons see about the same risk of a Labour government raising taxes as a Conservative one.

“He’s the British expert on tax rises,” Starmer said during one heated exchange with Sunak on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters in Portsmouth, Starmer reiterated that Labour wouldn’t raise corporation tax and also told reporters he had “no plans to raise inheritance tax.” The party has set out tax measures including removing the tax break for private schools and extending the windfall tax on energy firms. “None of our plans involve tax rises over and above the ones we’ve spelled out because all of our plans are fully costed and fully funded,” he said.

Meanwhile, proving that campaign attack lines can have unintended consequences, the Spectator magazine — which is typically supportive of the Conservatives — used a similar analysis to the Tory attack on Labour to cost Sunak’s own plans, finding the hit to households would be larger at £3,020.

“Except this would be just as misleading as the £2,000 figure that Sunak used so often in the debate last night,” it said.

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