Sunak Tries Fear to Slow Starmer’s March to UK Election Victory

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak said the UK would be less safe under a Labour government, urging voters to look past his Conservative Party’s record over 14 years in office that he acknowledged had been less than “perfect.”

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With the Tories trailing Keir Starmer’s opposition party by as much as 30 points in national polls, the prime minister used a speech in London on Monday to try to reset the political narrative ahead of a general election he signaled will take place in the second half of the year. Sunak covered a broad range of topics, touching on education, the global financial crisis, the pandemic and infrastructure. But his dominant theme was security, as he tried to present Starmer as a threat to the nation.

“The dangers that threaten our country are real,” Sunak said Monday, citing the growing threat by countries including Russia, Iran, North Korea and China. “I’m convinced that the next few years will be some of the most dangerous yet most transformational our country has ever known.”

Sunak is trying to forge a dividing line over his pledge last month to raise defense spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2030. While Starmer was the first to say he would raise defense spending to that level, he didn’t give a time line, saying only that he would do it only when public finances allowed. Setting out what looks set to be a major Tory campaign theme, the premier said the question facing voters would be which party they trust more in what he called an increasingly “dangerous world.”

The problem for Sunak is that polling suggests his Conservatives have shed their traditional advantage on defense and security. According to a tracking survey by YouGov, the Tory lead over Labour is just 2 percentage points, following a significant decline since early 2020.

Starmer hit back, saying that national security would be his “first priority” and that the armed forces have been “hollowed out” under the Conservatives. “The Tory government has become a byword for incompetence,” he told broadcasters.

Sunak’s apparent pivot also runs counter to the briefing around his decision to revive David Cameron’s political career last year. The anti-Brexit former premier was far from the logical choice as foreign secretary in a Sunak cabinet, but the idea was to bring a degree of extra competence to the area, freeing up the prime minister to focus on the economy and domestic issues.

Cameron last week gave his first major speech since taking the role, setting out a case for British influence on global affairs amid growing security threats.

Read more: Sunak Opens Rift With Tory Right by Reviving David Cameron

As Sunak spoke, WeThink published a poll that put the prime minister on his lowest ever net approval rating, at minus 31. Just 23% of voters said he was their preferred premier, compared to 45% who chose Starmer. A poll by Ipsos published just after Sunak’s speech found that 75% of Britons think Sunak is unlikely to win the next general election.

Those surveys point to the challenge facing Sunak: the Conservatives’ record in office. It’s an issue the prime minister acknowledged in his speech when he said he’s “not pretending everything has been perfect in the last 14 years.”

Instead, he said voters should look to the future and accused Labour of building an election pitch around the problems facing the country.

“I refuse to accept the doomsterism and the cynical narrative of decline that my opponents hope will depress people into voting for them,” he said, an echo of predecessor Boris Johnson’s frequent attacks on Starmer in the House of Commons. “It’s about the future versus the past.”

Asked directly if his election pitch boiled down to “better the devil you know,” Sunak agreed. Labour’s significant poll lead suggest voters may not.

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