Sunak Seeks UK Game-Changer as Tories and Labour Hit by Jitters

(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak is searching for a policy that can shift the UK election after some eye-catching Conservative pledges — and Labour’s first major wobble — failed to dent the opposition party’s momentum in the polls.

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The prime minister’s campaign chiefs are weighing up what to say next after a YouGov survey published Friday showed Labour ahead by 25 points, despite the Tories setting the media agenda for much of the week by announcing a tax cut for pensioners and a plan to bring back mandatory national service.

Tory officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested Sunak could offer to cut inheritance tax or the levy on property sales. Some in the party have not given up on implementing his plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda before the July 4 vote, after the campaign suffered an early setback when the premier told broadcasts the first flights won’t take place until later.

If Sunak can’t turn Conservative fortunes around, he’ll be out of 10 Downing Street on July 5 and Keir Starmer will be the first Labour prime minister in 14 years. The Tory campaign is designed to start to narrow the gap early. If things stay as they are, the party’s own estimate is that it will win as few as 130 seats in the House of Commons — compared with 365 in 2019.

The first televised debate with Starmer on Tuesday is seen as a key milestone to measure campaign progress.

Some Conservative officials in the party’s head office — so not the people around Sunak — fear the campaign is already going wrong and risks guaranteeing defeat. One dubbed it a 30% strategy, aimed at hitting that number in the polls (the Tories are generally in the mid-20s now) to avoid a wipeout. They described the party as aiming for a compassionate death.

Other Tory MPs and aides criticized what’s been widely seen as a strategy to go after the core Tory vote of older people and those considering backing the right-wing Reform UK party. The tax break for pensioners and the promise to bring back national service for younger Britons — which plays into right-wing narratives around social cohesion — fit the strategy, but some Tories privately said they risked pushing more swing voters to Labour.

One Sunak ally rejected the idea that the party is pursuing a 30% strategy, insisting it is pitching for votes from all demographics. They also rejected criticism that Sunak was running a presidential-style campaign, insisting senior ministers like Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch would soon be be involved.

A spokesperson for the Conservative Party declined to comment.

Still, there are tensions. Critics said the Tory campaign is being controlled by a handful of people, with policies finalized hours before they’re announced. Some senior Sunak aides, including deputy chief of staff Will Tanner, are also distracted trying to secure seats to run as a candidate themselves.

Even though Sunak had the advantage in setting the election timing, it caught much of his party by surprise. It’s yet to finalize its candidate list, with some estimates putting it at almost 200 short before the deadline next week.

It was quarreling over candidate selection that also destabilized Labour’s opening week. While Starmer’s allies were encouraged by the static polls, they privately acknowledged that three days of negative headlines about a split over the treatment of left-wing lawmakers such as Diane Abbott — the first female Black member of Parliament — were damaging.

Starmer said Friday that Abbott, whose suspension over past comments about racism ended this week, would be allowed to stand. It was a clear attempt to draw a line under the controversy, hours after Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner intervened on Abbott’s behalf.

Sunak’s party, meanwhile, will try to portray Starmer as weak for being pushed around by Abbott and Rayner, Tory officials said.

Ahead of UK elections, it’s normal for political parties to find so-called safe seats for trusted advisers to run as candidates, and Abbott’s London district of Hackney North and Stoke Newington is particularly sought-after.

But according to Michael Crick, a journalist who tracks the MP selection process, it’s happening “more this year than ever before.” Both Conservatives and Labour have intentionally left many seats to the last minute, to bypass local selection, he said. “Both parties are playing the same trick,” he said.

To be sure, few in Labour are concerned that a fresh fight with the party’s left will harm their electoral chances, arguing that most voters are not tuned in and that in any case, moving on from the controversial left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is what helped make Labour electable again.

Labour campaign chief Morgan McSweeney was relaxed about the row, which is triggered by his effort to stack the party with lawmakers loyal to Starmer at the expense of the Labour left, people familiar with the matter said.

Yet some prominent Labour lawmakers, including in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, are uneasy about the tactics. One aide to a shadow minister said Starmer’s largely male-dominated senior team ran the party with an iron grip and instilled a climate of fear among colleagues.

A Starmer ally countered that politics is not a summer camp.

One Labour aide suggested Abbott should be allowed to stand while younger left-wingers who pose a longer-term threat should be blocked. Others expressed irritation with Rayner and others who had fought Abbott’s corner, arguing that her standing would undermine messaging about a changed Labour Party.

Just as with the Tories, there are other signs not all senior Labour figures are on the same page. Some officials said Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, was making efforts to reconcile with those who expressed concerns during the week.

Starmer’s team has also faced criticism over the lack of major policy announcements and the opening it gave the media to look for trouble.

A Labour spokesperson declined to comment.

Ahead of the debate, Labour aides are preparing to counter Tory attack lines on tax. Privately, some party officials say they are in an awkward position because of the UK’s stretched public finances and ailing public services.

Labour has ruled out increases to income tax, the national insurance payroll tax or the value-added tax, officials said, though they conceded the party’s language around having “no plans” for other hikes was less clearcut.

But one Labour official said the party is confident about a fight on tax, given the burden has soared under the Tories and polls show Labour is now more trusted than Sunak’s party on the economy.

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