The Guardian view on Sunak v Starmer: time to get real | Editorial

Forget Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder – Westminster is braced for its own epic bout: “weird guy” versus “centrist dad”. At least, that is how advisers to Sir Keir Starmer would like it framed: the super-wealthy and preternaturally young new prime minister versus their reliably grownup leader.

If Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions is any guide, Labour ministers will need to deepen and broaden their attack. It’s not that they lack for material, served up in a reliably adult manner by the leader of the opposition. From Rishi Sunak’s non-dom wife to his reappointment of Suella Braverman to the very office she quit in disgrace just last week, all was present and correct. One can see in this the germ of this winter’s political debate – and the two big problems with it.

Not only did Mr Sunak have his guard up, he’d brought his own parries. In the new prime minister’s view, his rival is a north London remainer who worships Jeremy Corbyn. Missing from this tired ding-dong between Sir Forensic and a reedy, dweeby understudy of Boris Johnson was the fact that the vast majority of voters are suffering a vicious squeeze on their living standards.

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Meanwhile, pubs and churches are setting themselves up as warm hubs, so that people who can’t afford to heat their homes do not freeze this winter. Hospitals in Leicester have started food banks for their own workers. Not only does the parliamentary pantomime ring particularly hollow in this brutal winter, but the post-2020 dynamic of Labour competence against Conservative culture war is over. To rehash an old rule of politics: it’s the economic crisis, stupid. And neither Mr Sunak nor Sir Keir is prepared.

In fairness to the new prime minister, he has got one thing right. By putting off the next budget until mid-November, he has given his government breathing and thinking space to make more serious fiscal plans. The bad news is he plans another disastrous round of austerity. Wednesday’s most telling challenge came from the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, who asked for a guarantee that benefits would rise in line with inflation – a guarantee the prime minister refused to give. This will drive to destitution some of the lowest-paid Britons, as recognised by a Tory chancellor who just a few months back swore benefits would be linked to inflation. That chancellor was none other than Mr Sunak.

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The odds-on favourite to be the next prime minister is of course Sir Keir, and it is natural that he will be asked more and more what he would do differently. So far, the honest answer is: we don’t know. Labour has a £28bn-a-year green investment package and a pledge to scrap the non-dom tax loophole. But it needs to do more on wealth taxes, and it should argue that spending cuts amid a recession are madness. Far better to protect benefits and public servants’ wages, and to lay out plans to grow the economy. Given how fast food prices are rising, it should also guarantee meals for schoolchildren – in and out of term.

Oppositions don’t win elections, it is often said; governments lose them. From Boris Johnson to Liz Truss, through parties and lobbying scandals and foolhardy budgets, this government has done its level best to lose the next election. Now it’s up to Labour to prove why it should win.

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