Sunak tries to calm panicked Tories as Farage demands place on BBC leaders’ debate

Rishi Sunak has been forced to try to get his party’s election campaign back on track as Farage openly taunts the Tories

David Maddox
Political editor
Friday 14 June 2024 22:17 BST
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Rishi Sunak has moved to calm Tory nerves amid panic after Reform UK overtook his party in a damaging YouGov poll.

On a day when Nigel Farage called for a head-to-head debate with Mr Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer, the prime minister tried to take back control of his own election campaign as he flew back from the G7 conference in Italy.

The Reform UK leader began the day taunting the Tories with a video of him singing an Eminem song: “Guess who’s back? Back again!”

Labour then accused the Tories of lying again after a cabinet minister claimed a Starmer government would introduce 18 new taxes, including a capital gains tax raid on people selling their homes.

Rishi Sunak welcomes Pope Francis on day two of the 50th G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy
Rishi Sunak welcomes Pope Francis on day two of the 50th G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy (AP)

The Tories were left reeling when a YouGov poll on Thursday put Mr Farage’s Reform UK ahead of them by a point – 19 per cent to 18 per cent.

The same poll had Labour on 37 per cent and suggested that the Conservatives are on track to win fewer than 100 seats for the first time in their 346-year-history.

A Whitestone poll on Friday was the sixth in 24 hours to confirm Reform is at least closing the gap on the Tories, up one to 17 per cent, with the Tories down three to 19 per cent and Labour down one to 41 per cent.

But with Tory ministers now openly warning of a Labour “supermajority”, Mr Sunak insisted that voting for Reform UK would be “handing Labour a blank cheque” as he tried to play down the prospect of Mr Farage’s party overtaking the Conservatives.

The prime minister predicted a comeback, stressing that “we are only halfway through this election” and the choice between the Tories and Labour will “crystallise for people between now and polling day”.

It came after Reform leader Mr Farage claimed his party was now “the opposition to Labour” and flipped the Conservative campaign rhetoric by saying a vote for the Tories is a vote for Labour.

Demanding a spot on the BBC leaders’ debate next week, he added: “We are the challengers to Labour. We are now the real opposition.

Nigel Farage is openly laughing at the Tories’ predicament
Nigel Farage is openly laughing at the Tories’ predicament (EPA)

“And this needs to be reflected, and it’s beginning to be reflected by the polling industry but it needs to be reflected by the broadcasters as well, because Ofcom and the guidance they’ve given to broadcasters say that really, the most important of all the factors is the performance in the last two general elections.”

Mr Sunak, who was taking a break from the campaign trail to meet world leaders in Italy, told reporters at the G7 summit in Puglia that he would stay on as MP if his party lost at the election.

And he expressed confidence his party would regain its lead over Reform. “We are only halfway through this election, so I’m still fighting very hard for every vote,” he said.

"And what that poll shows is – the only poll that matters is the one on 4 July – but if that poll was replicated on 4 July, it would be handing Labour a blank cheque to tax everyone, tax their home, their pension, their car, their family, and I’ll be fighting very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“And actually, when I’ve been out and about talking to people, they do understand that a vote for anyone who is not a Conservative candidate is just a vote to put Keir Starmer in No 10.”

He added that there is a “massive difference” between Labour and the Tories, claiming that Labour would “raise the tax burden to the highest level in this country’s history” after Sir Keir’s party launched its manifesto on Thursday.

“I think that choice will crystallise for people between now and polling day,” the prime minister said.

The intervention came as the Tories bet their recovery on attacking Labour over 18 alleged “secret taxes”. This included claims that they plan to tax the sale of people’s primary homes with capital gains tax for the first time in history.

A Labour spokesperson said: “No. Labour will not introduce capital gains taxes on primary residences. It’s a bad idea.

“The Conservatives are lying. It’s a sign of utter desperation that the Tories are talking about things they have imagined and that Labour isn’t doing.

“Our plan will make working people better off, while the Tories offer more irresponsible promises that will lead to a £4,800 hike on family mortgages.

“After 14 years of Tory chaos, it’s time to turn the page and rebuild Britain with Labour.”

At a press conference in Westminster later on Friday, chief secretary to the Treasury Laura Trott said the YouGov poll was a “stark warning” but, echoing the PM, insisted that “we’re only halfway through”.

“But I’m not going to underplay it. If a result like this is replicated on election day, Keir Starmer would have huge and unchecked power to tax your home, your job, your car, your pension however he wants,” she said.

Ms Trott doubled down on the disputed Tory claim that Labour’s policies would cost every working family £2,094 in tax over the course of the next parliament.

Speaking to the BBC’s Nick Robinson for a Panorama interview, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer tried to tackle the tax claims beiing made against Labour.

He said: “We are going to deal with the non-dom tax status. We are going to deal with the private equity loophole. We are going to deal with the tax break for private schools, and the tax that we need to introduce or to extend on oil and gas companies. But none of our plans require any other tax rises

“Unlike some Labour leaders that may have sat in a chair like this in an interview with you, my manifesto is about wealth creation. This is a party of wealth creation, of growth and therefore this boxing-in that everyone is trying to do, particularly in recent days that the only levers available to a Labour government, or Labour Prime Minister is to put up tax or pull down spending, I reject that.

“Growth is the lever that I intend to pull. That is why this plan is so carefully thought through.”

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson also intervened, having previously ignored Mr Sunak’s pleas for help.

He sent five videos of support to candidates who as MPs had been loyal to him while ignoring calls for help to revive the national campaign.

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