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And They're Off !

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Well, up to a point. With both party leaders making election-launch-style pitches, voters can be forgiven for thinking it’s just round the corner. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, it’s more like a marathon in which no one knows where the finishing line is.

Face it, Rishi Sunak could in theory hold out for the better part of another year. He probably won’t, but it is his call.

Brings to mind a fun line from the character Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.’

But there’s also the more cold blooded way of addressing the same dilemma, cited by the Australian election guru Lynton Crosby: ‘You can’t fatten a pig on market day.’

His point being it’s no use springing something on the punters just before they head off to the polling stations. You’ve got to say it, say it again and keep on saying it until you’re blue in the face.

Or red, of course, if you happen to be on the socialist side.

And that’s largely because of the self-evident truth contained in one of the shrewdest things Tony Blair ever said:

‘The single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long.’

Talking of Tony, many parallels have been drawn between his pre-election pledge card back in 1997 and Keir Starmer’s proudly flourished list of priorities.

At his glitzy event in Essex last week what he held aloft did seem strikingly similar. But this association was about style, not content.

Starmer may be cresting a wave of huge poll leads, but he’s under no illusion that he’s the fabled ‘heir to Blair’.

It’s easy to forget, after he fell from grace over the Iraq war, that in his early days at Number Ten Blair had little short of rock star status.

Remember, he talked human, coined cool Britannia, and had even sang and played guitar in a student band. Called The Ugly Rumours, incidentally.

Well, there are no rumours suggesting Starmer’s trying to follow that act.

His challenging childhood, sick mum and emotionally constrained dad, has made it hard for him to seem anything other than robotic, never mind human.

He’s made progress, and the picture of him on the pledge card, tieless and with sleeves rolled up, is a nice touch.

It’s also appearing on billboards all over the place. That too will help ram home the message that he is at least recognisably a person.

But what’s included in the list of pledges is another reminder that he’s no heir to Blair.

New Labour’s new administration owed a huge debt of thanks to the outgoing Tories, as the much-derided John Major had left the economy in pretty fine fettle.

Much the same as when King Henry the Eighth’s super-cautious father left him with plenty of money to chuck around, our Tone’s huge boost to health and education spending wasn’t that hard.

A sad contrast to today, with the nation so hideously strapped for cash. Which goes a long way to explain why Starmer’s tick list is so short, and so modest.

Also why he put delivering economic stability right at the top.

His Ms Moneybags Rachel Reeves, who makes much of her credentials as a former economist at the Bank of England, is promising never to: ‘Play fast and loose with the public finances.’

Meaning, she and Starmer both hope they can convince voters, an incoming Labour government will make sure taxes, inflation and mortgages will be kept as low as conceivably possible.

At the same time, they recognise that their earlier mission language, which stressed ‘achieving the highest GDP per capita growth in the G7’ wasn’t exactly sexy.

In short, better to go with the old journalists’ axiom: ‘Make it fast, make it tight.’

However, the third dictum in that line is: ‘Make it up.’ Which is what the Tories have homed in on, in response.

And as the press clunks into pre-election mode, right-wing papers pushed the Labour message down the front page on Friday, opting instead to splash on the Chancellor’s riposte.

‘Labour tax rises as sure as night follows day, says Hunt,’ screamed the Telegraph, also known as the Torygraph.

It’s worth noting that the Financial Times, which is read by movers and shakers in the City who thirst for information rather than propaganda, stuck with Starmer as the lead.

No question, however, both sides will be jockeying for position as the more trustworthy on the economy. With each claiming the other’s saddled with sums that don’t add up.

Whichever horse you back, mind, there’s no getting round the fact that existing tax levels are at a seventy-year high.

Not that that stops the Tories from claiming that they’ve held things pretty steady against the headwinds of Covid and the furlough scheme, and Ukraine and steep hikes in energy prices.

They do, however, omit to mention the serious damage that nearly all economists agree continues to be done to the nation’s balance sheets by Brexit. Which is, after all, down to them.

Mention of Ukraine, meanwhile, does bring into focus the Prime Minister’s big speech earlier in the week, which was also widely seen as an opening shot in the election campaign.

In it he bigged up his commitment to raise spending on defence, which does feel particularly timely alongside all those images of Putin cosying up to the Chinese President.

Sunak sought to draw a distinction between his pledge to up the figure over the next five years and Starmer’s promise only to do so when we can afford it.

The nation’s security then, he thundered, is only safe in our hands. And not in theirs.

Again, though, there’s a salient point that he omitted to mention. That if there’s a shred of truth in any of the opinion polls it’ll be down to Starmer, not him, to come up with the goods.

To that extent he can promise free beer for all the workers or anything else that takes his fancy, as forking out the dosh for it almost certainly won’t be his problem.

Same as trying to redress the long-term damage wrought by the austerity programme put together by former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

His package of measures was a good deal harsher than that of many comparable European nations, and is to a large degree responsible for the dire state of many local council services.

So, if Starmer does get the keys to Number Ten he might wish he had the expertise of the special hawks trained and flown by the London-based company Citihawk.

They’re ever so good at preventing other birds, notably pigeons, from leaving a mess in the first place. Just by swooping down and scaring the living daylights out of them.

Not even as if they eat their smaller peers, as the titbits their handlers reward them with are much tastier anyway.

Nice to find a story with a happy ending. Just for a change.


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