Starmer warns Sunak he’ll meet ‘fire with fire’ as UK set for long and dirty election battle

Sunak accused of ‘bottling’ spring election as he signals autumn poll – after Labour leader fires starting gun on campaign with defiant speech

Adam Forrest
Thursday 04 January 2024 20:32 GMT
Rishi Sunak says 'working assumption' is general election will be in second half of 2024

Britain is set for a long and dirty general election campaign in 2024 after Rishi Sunak ruled out a spring vote and revealed that he wanted to go to the polls much later in the year.

Sir Keir Starmer vowed to fight “fire with fire” as he predicted that the Tories would embark on nasty and personal attacks in a battle now expected to last until at least October.

The Labour leader set out his “Project Hope” plan during a major speech in Bristol – but indicated that his party was ready to engage in negative campaigning, as he warned activists that their rivals “will go low”.

The Tory leader raised the prospect of a lengthy and bitter campaign on Thursday when he told reporters it was his “working assumption” that he would call the election in the second half of the year.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats – who have also been calling for a May election – immediately accused the PM of “bottling” a spring contest. Sir Keir claimed that the PM was trying to “squat” at No 10 for as long as possible.

The Independent understands that Mr Sunak is planning an October election. Sources say it is likely to be in the first two weeks of that month – with the PM unlikely to wait until mid-November, as reported, since it would clash with the US election.

Speaking on a visit to a youth centre in Nottinghamshire, Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “So my working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year.”

Rishi Sunak reveals his general election plan during a visit to the East Midlands (PA)

The Conservative leader declined to rule out a May election categorically – but repeated his intention to hold one later in the year, adding: “In the meantime I’ve got lots that I want to get on with.”

As bookmakers immediately slashed odds on an autumn election, the Labour leader taunted his Tory rival to agree to an election soon, saying: “If he is not being clear, and I don’t think he is setting a date, what is he hiding?”

Sir Keir told Sky News: “I would like to see an election as soon as possible. I think the vast majority of the public want to see an election as soon as possible ... People can’t afford for the PM to be squatting for months on end this year.”

The Labour leader argued that he had made a “positive case” after a speech asking voters to hang on to the “flickering hope in your heart that things can be better” – but warned that he would not pull any punches when the Conservatives launch their own attacks.

He told Sky News: “They will go low. What I’m saying is if they want to go with fire into this election, we will meet their fire with fire.” He argued that negative campaigning was justified because “the stakes at this election are so high for working people”.

Keir Starmer promised ‘hope’ during a speech in Bristol on Thursday (Getty Images)

While the Tories are expected to attack Sir Keir’s record as director of public prosecutions – and attempt to link him to the decision to drop an investigation into Jimmy Savile – Labour has faced criticism for accusing Mr Sunak of not wanting to see child sex abusers jailed.

Labour sources have made clear that Mr Starmer was not told when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case against the infamous child sexual abuser in 2009.

Meanwhile, Conservative polling guru Robert Hayward told The Independent that most “serious” Tory MPs favour an autumn election – though some are worried the local elections in May will only add to the “doom and gloom”.

The Tory peer believes, on balance, that Mr Sunak was “wise” to wait in the hope of an economic revival. And he said the PM was smart to rule out a spring election today to stop Labour “going on and on about the ‘running away’ narrative”.

Lord Hayward added: “It’s not risk-free, because the local elections will be bad. But the polls are still so awful. And it’s just possible that voters will become more inclined to consider his competence if inflation and interest rates continue to fall.”

Former No 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell said Mr Sunak was “sensible to dampen the speculation down” of a spring election – avoiding the Labour “trap” of letting the speculation continue and being “accused of bottling it when it didn’t happen”.

Sunak speaking to voters in Mansfield (PA)

Mr Sunak dangled the prospect of future tax cuts while speaking to a group of voters in Mansfield – as he pointed to the easing of national insurance from 12 per cent to 10 per cent.

“We want to do more because as we manage the economy responsibly, we can cut your taxes, give you and your family peace of mind ... and confidence that the future is going to be better for you and your children,” he said.

The Tory leader appeared to concede that making progress in 2023 had been difficult, but promised a “better year” ahead. He said: “I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the easiest of years for any of us ... I know that 2024 is going to be a better year, I want to make sure that all you believe 2024 is going to be a better year too.”

Mr Sunak also called on junior doctors to end their strike, as experts warn that ongoing industrial action puts his promise to cut waiting lists at risk.

The PM backed NHS leaders after a number of hospitals pleaded for junior doctors to leave picket lines and return to work amid patient safety fears. “These strikes are disrupting people’s lives,” the Tory leader said. “They are causing an enormous amount of concern to people.”

Starmer accuses Sunak of 'squatting' in No 10 after PM refuses spring election

Sir Keir pledged in his Bristol speech to bring hope to an “exhausted” Britain in 2024, as he accused the “miserable” Tories of “pointless populist” gimmicks.

He said a Labour government would want to cut taxes – but insisted that reversing flagging growth would be the first priority if he takes power at the next general election.

Sir Keir also conceded his planned £28bn-a-year green energy investment could shrink depending on economic conditions – saying it would be subject to strict fiscal rules.

“The first lever that we want to pull, the first place we will go, is growth in our economy because that’s what’s been missing for 14 years,” said the Labour boss. “Any tax cuts have to be fair and affordable, and we have to be realistic about that. But I think the place to go is to growth on this.”

Speaking to reporters at the end of a speech in Bristol, the Labour leader also said claims that he wanted to duck TV debates with Mr Sunak were “nonsense” – adding: “Bring it on.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in