Trump-Style Tory Attacks on Starmer’s Age Backfired, Poll Says

(Bloomberg) -- Efforts by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives to follow Donald Trump’s playbook by attacking Labour leader Keir Starmer over his age have fallen flat, an opinion poll found, as senior Tories criticized the US-style rhetoric used in the UK campaign.

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In the opening days of the general election race, Conservative officials sought to label Starmer “Sir Sleepy” and “Sleepy Keir,” an apparent reference to Trump’s infamous barb at “Sleepy Joe” Biden, the 81-year-old US President. At 61, Starmer would be the oldest prime minister to take office in Britain in almost half a century.

So far, the campaign tactic has failed to move voters and may end up backfiring on Sunak’s Tories, according to a survey by More In Common that was shared with Bloomberg. Only 17% of the public think Starmer is too old to lead the country, a figure that drops to just 5% among the key swing voters who will decide marginal seats at the election on July 4, the poll found.

The data highlights the risk posed to the Tories of adopting Trump-style tactics in a country where voters have largely failed to warm to the former US president: an Ipsos survey in February found that 71% of Britons hold an unfavorable opinion of him. One cabinet minister told Bloomberg they thought that copying Trump’s language was embarrassing for Sunak, while this week, the premier and other senior members of his government have declined to repeat the attack used by Tory officials in briefings to journalists.

“The substance is what matters at this election,” the premier said when asked about Starmer’s age on Monday. Mel Stride, another Cabinet minister, said “Sleepy Keir” is “not a term that I have used or would use.”

The voters most likely to think Starmer is too old are already planning to vote Conservative, according to the More in Common survey. Even among that group, only 26% take issue with Starmer’s age.

Moreover, criticizing Starmer too strongly for being in his sixties may be an unwise campaign strategy for the Tories because many of their own core voters are themselves in older age groups.

“Pretending that Starmer suffers from the same age problem as Biden is either wishful thinking on the part of the Tories, or a further instance of political aides having watched too much of the West Wing,” said Luke Tryl, director of More In Common.

“The key demographic that the Conservatives need to win back if they’re going to avoid a 1997-style landslide defeat are those that voted Conservative in 2019 but now say they don’t know how they will vote,” Tryl said. “This group have an average age of 61 - exactly the same age as Starmer. That’s why implying people of that age are past it is a risky electoral strategy.”

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