What Rishi Sunak’s manifesto launch means for the Conservative election campaign

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Rishi Sunak launched the Conservative Party manifesto this afternoon at the Silverstone racetrack in Northamptonshire.

It was reported back in 2019 that Boris Johnson wanted to use the site for his launch event at the last election — but was thwarted because the venue was booked for a running race. No such trouble this time; although Sunak did not note in his speech that Brad Pitt could be seen filming a new movie around the corner.

Today’s launch was a chance for the prime minister to get the Conservative campaign back on track after a torrid few days dominated by the D-Day row. That said, even the most enthusiastic Sunak supporter would likely concede that the manifesto — however well-received — will fail to fix Sunak’s political problems in a single swoop. But the prime minister’s opportunity today was more specific: to shift the election conversation onto more comfortable territory and stem the rolling character assassinations sparked by his D-Day debacle.

There is the converse calculation, of course: that a weak performance by the PM and a flat set of policies would empower the sense that the contest is already over.

With the stakes set then, how did Sunak get on?

This election, the prime minister’s central pitch is that the Conservative Party offers the “bold action” that Starmer and Labour shy away from. As such, Sunak sought to live up to his core message today with his offer on tax — unveiling a surprise plan to abolish National Insurance payments for almost all self-employed people.

This is the relevant section in the Conservative manifesto: “To recognise the unique contribution of these risk-takers and entrepreneurs to our economy and the insecurity they face without the rights and protections that employees enjoy, we will abolish it entirely by the end of the next parliament.”

“A tax abolished and enterprise encouraged”, the prime minister declared today to applause from assembled activists and cabinet ministers. The PM also pledged to slash employee national insurance by a further 2p; if the Conservatives are re-elected, it would amount to the third consecutive NI cut, after the recent spring budget and autumn statement last year.

In his address, Sunak foregrounded the fiscal policy divide between Labour and the Conservatives, repeating his much-maligned claim that Labour would put up taxes by more than £2,000. “We are the party of Margaret Thatcher and Lord Lawson”, Sunak declared. “A party unlike Labour that believes in sound money.”

In total, Sunak’s big ticket manifesto items (including previously announced plans on national service for young people and a “pensions triple lock plus”) are costed at just under £64 billion over the five-year forecast. The party insists that sum will be covered by a £65 billion combo of cuts to the welfare bill plus stopping tax avoidance and evasion; it’s a claim set for a lot of scrutiny over the coming days.

Sunak, of course, has ruled out further income tax and VAT rises if re-elected on the 4th July; but, as a series of journalists pointed out in the launch’s Q&A portion, the overall tax burden is still set to rise — given income thresholds are frozen for another three years under current plans.

Answering questions from the travelling lobby pack, Sunak was also forced to explain why the manifesto did not contain a politically charged pledge on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) — a favourite talking point of the Conservative right. The PM told a GB News inquisitor: “I’ve been clear throughout that I believe that our [flagship Rwanda deportation] plan is compliant with all our international obligations”.

He added: “I’ve also been clear — and the manifesto is crystal clear — that if we are forced to choose between the jurisdiction of a foreign court, including the ECHR, and our country’s national security, then I’m going to choose our country’s national security every single time.”

As for the Labour Party, Keir Starmer got his attacks in early with a broadcast clip filmed just minutes before the start of Sunak’s launch event. In it, the Labour leader made the headline-grabbing claim that the prime minister was acting like Jeremy Corbyn with his manifesto proposals.

“It’s a Jeremy Corbyn-style manifesto”, Starmer said, “which is load everything into the wheelbarrow, don’t provide the funding and hope that nobody notices the money isn’t there.” More here.

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