Which Tory politician is Labour most afraid of? While it's Boris Johnson who Sir Keir Starmer most regularly goes up to bat against at the despatch box, these days Her Majesty's Opposition appear most focused on criticising Rishi Sunak. Take Starmer's speech this lunchtime to the Confederation of British Industry. While the Labour leader criticised the Prime Minister for failing to learn from coronavirus mistakes, it was Sunak who bore the brunt of his attack lines:
“'Make no mistake, the Chancellor’s name’s all over this. His decision to block a circuit breaker… will now mean that businesses have to close for longer. More people will lose their job. And the public finances will be worse than they needed to be.'
It comes after shadow ministers criticised Sunak for self-promotion when putting his signature on Treasury schemes; Metro mayor Andy Burnham singled him out for criticism over the Greater Manchester Tier 3 funding row; and an unofficial attack video surfaced highlighting the Chancellor's wealth. While that video did not come directly from the party, it showed how many of the party's base view Sunak as the figure they need to worry about most.
There had been a Labour attempt to attack Sunak for cutting financial support and ending furlough. However, with the government changing course on lockdown weeks after Labour called on them to do so, Sunak's position as a Cabinet hawk is now up for criticism. The Chancellor's previous push for fewer restrictions means that Labour believe they have an easy way to attack him.
Part of the motivation for doing this is that recent polling suggests that Sunak isn't just the most popular Tory politician in the country, his popularity goes beyond traditional party lines – he is the most popular Chancellor in 40 years. Focus group feedback has also suggested he is viewed as a different type of Tory than the traditional stereotype.
While Starmer's attack lines have led to speculation that he believes he will face Sunak rather than Johnson at the next election, it's clear that Labour believe he presents an immediate problem. The Chancellor is in such a senior position that support for him personally boosts general support for the government. The hope among allies of the Chancellor is that he has done enough in his short time in No. 11 to establish in the public's mind that he means well and is a compassionate Chancellor. Figures in the Labour party hope that with coronavirus cases rising and difficult financial decisions looming, over time they will be able to suggest the contrary.