PMQs: Sunak slams Starmer for ‘reading from prepared sheets’
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Party leader Sir Keir Starmer and New Labour veterans Lord Mandelson and Alan Milburn have urged supporters against complacency as the Conservatives plot to stay in power. Labour commands a lead of around 20 points in the polls and the Tories have been rocked by scandals. But the Labour heavyweights cautioned that the Conservatives will “never give up”.
Former health secretary Mr Milburn, inset, warned it is still “game on” and said that opinion polls “count for nothing”, predicting Rishi Sunak will call the election “as late as possible”.
He told GB News: “Why is he going to do that? Because he’s 20 points behind in the opinion polls.
“So he needs all the time he can get in order to try to claw that lead back, and, at a minimum, try to prevent Labour from getting an overall majority.”
Describing the run-up to Labour’s historic 1997 landslide, he said: “Although the opinion polls were saying Labour was going to have a landslide, not one of us believed it.”
And Lord Mandelson warned the party against “inhaling” its present success.
He told the broadcaster: “The biggest risk is that we think the next election is in the bag and we relax, we take it for granted.
“No, we have to maintain our absolute focus on voters, particularly those voters who have yet to be convinced that Labour does offer a credible, united, progressive alternative.”
Sir Keir yesterday also urged supporters not to assume that victory is assured, saying: “The Tories will never give up on power – that’s not who they are. So no let up, no complacency, fight for every vote.”
Their warnings come as Tory strategists focus on how to avoid defeat at the election expected next year. When the Cabinet gathered at Chequers on Thursday they were told by Australian strategist Isaac Levido that there is a “narrow path” to victory but that party discipline is vital.
The PM and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s attempts to restore the Tories’ reputation as champions of economic stability have been overshadowed by the furore around Party Chairman Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs.
Mr Zahawi is facing calls to step down while he is under investigation by the PM’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests for settling a multi-million-pound tax dispute while chancellor. His settlement with HMRC is estimated to be £4.8million, including a penalty.
Downing Street has denied reports that Mr Sunak received informal advice from Government officials in October that there could be a reputational risk to the Government from Mr Zahawi. A spokesperson insisted the PM was “not informed of these details, informally or otherwise”.
HMRC boss Jim Harra hiked up the pressure on Mr Zahawi when he told MPs there are “no penalties for innocent errors in your tax affairs”.
But HMRC has admitted it made mistakes in its response to a freedom of information request. The Financial Times reported that HMRC last year stated no minister was being investigated when Mr Zahawi was the subject of a probe.
Mr Sunak could come under fire from fellow Conservatives if the party does badly in the local elections due on May 4.
The Conservative Democratic Organization – launched after Tory members were denied a vote on who should succeed Liz Truss – plans to stage its first conference after the elections and this could become a flashpoint for grassroots unrest.
Supporters of ex-premier Boris Johnson have not given up hope of him making a comeback. A high-profile Tory said: “Boris is the only hope for winning the next election. He would bring back a lot of support and excitement.”
A former special adviser said: “I’m a Rishi supporter but even I’m starting to think if we don’t turn it around maybe Boris would be worth a shot.”
However, a Tory MP stamped on the idea of a Boris return: “The parliamentary party has to want him back and they don’t. You can take all the selfies you want around the country, but it won’t change that fact.”
And Mr Johnson’s relationship with BBC chairman Richard Sharp has come under new attention.
The Sunday Times reported that when PM, Mr Johnson was allegedly formally advised by Cabinet Secetary Simon Case: “Given the imminent announcement of Richard Sharp as the new BBC chair, it is important that you no longer ask his advice about your personal financial matters.”
A spokesperson for the former prime minister said last night that Mr Sharp has “never given any financial advice to Boris Johnson, nor has Mr Johnson sought any financial advice from him”.
Despite the Tory woes, Labour leader Sir Keir has warned that his party needs to convince voters there will be no return to the policies or scandals of the Corbyn era.
Speaking at London’s regional conference, he said: “Our message at the next election must be that we’re different to the party that Britain rejected in 2019.”
Sir Keir added: “We must point to the changes we’ve made and must say – never again will Labour be a party of protest not public service.”
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