Rishi Sunak vows tax cuts as UK Conservatives fight to close polling gap

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is urging UK voters to support the Conservative Party in the upcoming July 4 election, promising tax cuts. Despite trailing Labour in polls, Mr. Sunak is emphasizing the party’s economic policies to regain voter confidence.

Benjamin Cremel/AP
Britain’s Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak, gave a speech on June 11, 2024, in Silverstone, England, to unveil the Conservatives’ general election manifesto.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on June 11 implored British voters, and his own party, to throw him a lifeline in the U.K.’s July 4 election, putting the promise of lower taxes at the heart of the Conservative Party’s election manifesto.

Mr. Sunak acknowledged that “people are frustrated with our party and frustrated with me,” but argued that the Conservatives are “the only party with the big ideas to make this country a better place to live.”

With the Conservatives trailing the left-of-center Labour Party in opinion polls, opponents said Mr. Sunak was making unrealistic and unaffordable promises in a desperate bid to stave off defeat. The launch of the Tories’ manifesto, its main package of pledges, came a day after Mr. Sunak was forced to deny rumors he could quit even before polling day as the Conservatives are alarmed over his lackluster campaign.

Mr. Sunak insisted he had not considered resigning and said he was “not going to stop fighting for people’s votes.”

He held the manifesto launch at Silverstone motor racing circuit in central England, home of the British Grand Prix, and it could be one of his last big chances to get his spluttering campaign back on track.

His central pitch was the claim that a government led by Labour’s Keir Starmer would raise taxes, while a Conservative one would lower them.

The party pledged 17 billion pounds ($22 billion) in tax cuts by 2030, to be paid for largely by slashing welfare costs. The main tax cut is a 2 percentage point reduction in National Insurance, a tax employees pay to qualify for a state pension. The Conservative government has already cut it twice, from 12% to the current 8%, and the new pledge would take it to 6%.

Mr. Sunak said the Conservatives would pay for lower taxes by “controlling the unsustainable rise in working-age welfare that has taken off since the pandemic.”

The Labour Party points out that the tax burden has risen to its highest level in decades during 14 years of Tory rule. Labour campaign chairman Pat McFadden called the Conservative manifesto a “desperate series of unfunded commitments” and “the most expensive panic attack in history.”

On July 4, British voters will elect lawmakers to fill all 650 seats in the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that can command a majority – either alone or in coalition – will become prime minister.

Mr. Sunak’s surprise decision to call a summer election, several months earlier than most people expected, was intended partly to catch the opposition unprepared.

But it’s the Conservatives who have seemed off-balance from the moment Mr. Sunak stood outside 10 Downing St. in the rain on May 22 to announce the start of the campaign.

The Conservatives were already on the defensive after jettisoning two prime ministers without an election in quick succession in 2022: first Boris Johnson, felled by scandals, then Liz Truss, who rocked the economy with drastic tax-slashing plans and lasted just seven weeks in office.

The party’s prospects worsened last week when populist firebrand Nigel Farage announced that he would run for Parliament at the helm of the right-wing party Reform U.K., vowing to be a “bloody nuisance” to the established parties.

While Reform, with its anti-establishment and anti-immigration rhetoric, is aiming to attract disaffected voters from both Conservatives and Labour, it’s likely to take more votes from Mr. Sunak’s party.

Mr. Sunak then flew home early from commemorations in France of the 80th anniversary of D-Day so he could resume campaigning. The photos of centenarian World War II veterans and an array of world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden attending the solemn ceremony on Omaha Beach without him were a publicity nightmare.

Mr. Sunak quickly realized his error and apologized.

Paul Goodman, a former Conservative lawmaker who is now a member of the House of Lords, said the irony is that apart from the D-Day gaffe, “the Conservatives have run a perfectly decent, conventional campaign,” but have little to show for it.

“They’ve launched lots of policies, they’ve had some hits on Labour,” he said. “Rishi Sunak actually did pretty well in the debate [against Mr. Starmer] last week. … All of this appears to have made no difference at all.”

Labour, eyeing a return to power, is running a cautious campaign centered on the single word “change.” Mr. Starmer’s core message – which dismays some in his left-of-center party – is that he has transformed Labour from its high-taxing, big-spending days into a party of the stable center.

“Politics is a relative business,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “You don’t have to be liked, you just have to be more popular than the other guy. And that’s what the Labour Party by and large are managing to pull off.”

While opinion polls giving Labour a double-digit lead may change, University of Strathclyde polling expert John Curtice said Mr. Sunak was facing a steep mountain to climb even before he called the election.

“Arguably the Tories’ days were numbered the moment that Liz Truss fouled up,” he said. “Because no government that has presided over a market crisis has survived at the ballot box.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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