Campaign catchup: Conservative manifesto; Farage pelted again; Green candidate defects

Good afternoon. The Guardian’s John Crace called it the first manifesto launch presented in a “demotivational speech” – and Rishi Sunak was surely feeling the pressure as he presented it this morning. The event was held at Silverstone racing course, but what were those messages? That he likes to move fast and break things? That he’s committed to a petrol future? Or maybe that this is where a rich man thinks regular people hang out?

Sunak’s introduction was downbeat: “I’m not blind to the fact that people are frustrated with our party and frustrated with me,” he said. “We have not always got everything right. But we’re the only party in this election with the big ideas”.

Many of those ideas will be familiar from recent debates or kite-flying: on defence, he reiterated the national service plan which went down so badly at the start of his campaign – a surprisingly broad flop, decried by both young people and the army. He also pledged to end no-fault evictions, which was in the Renters (Reform) Bill that was working its way through parliament anyway before the election was called.

But after a barrage of cuts to benefits, tax cuts and promises of more to come, the question everyone was left asking was: he says it’s costed, but is this really costed? More on that after the headlines.

What happened today

  1. Nigel Farage | Various things were thrown at the Reform leader as he passed a Yorkshire building site from the top of a bus today. Farage thought it was wet cement and a disposable cup, but either way it was serious enough that police arrested a 28-year-old man on suspicion of public order offences. It will surely reignite the increasingly heated debate on milkshakes: statement of politcal absurdity, or gateway missile to something worse?

  2. Robin Harper | The first ever Green parliamentarian in the UK, Harper has crossed the floor (sideways?) to join the Labour party, saying they are the only ones with a serious prospect of fighting climate change. The move will be much less contentious than Conservative defections, some of which have dismayed Labour members. It’s unlikely to cause too much distress in the Scottish Green party, which Harper left last year, disagreeing with its support for trans rights.

  3. Unemployment | The latest unemployment figures were released by the Office of National Statistics. They showed jobs down on the same time last year across a number of sectors, including manufacturing, retail and IT. The overall rise in the number of unemployed people is 138,000. Economists, who previously were looking forward to a rate cut from the Bank of England, now anticipate it being delayed until August at the earliest.

Analysis: You get a tax cut! And YOU get a tax cut!

Sunak’s Cabinet take in the manifesto launch. Photograph: Victoria Jones/REX/Shutterstock

“Manifesto week is a bit like having your meals designed by a four-year-old,” Sky News’s Sophy Ridge tweeted ahead of today’s event, “so expect Haribo, party rings, and Jammie Dodgers.” It’s an update on the old political cliche of “jam tomorrow” to describe the “stick with us and you’ll end up richer” strategy. Sunak’s plan matched it pretty closely.

The prime minister promised tax cuts for almost everyone. Employees, with a 2p cut to national insurance, and the ambition of axing the tax entirely in the long run. Families with children on above-average incomes, with that extension of child benefit, flagged earlier in the campaign. Pensioners got an income tax cut, and young people the permanent dropping of stamp duty on house purchases up to £425,000.

Sunak’s gamble is that voters might bloviate about Reform but, when it comes to polling day, will think with their pockets. The voter’s gamble will be more like: what about this prime minister makes you think he’ll keep his promises, or that he can afford to? Because he had other things up his sleeve … and they all had a price-tag.

On the NHS, he pledged to bring down waiting lists (again), and to invest £2.4bn to train new doctors and nurses. National service will itself cost a packet, even at the low-ball figure they’ve costed it for, as will driving up defence spending to 2.5% by 2030. The 8,000 new police officers won’t come cheap, nor will increasing sentences for the most serious crimes, given that prisons are already at breaking point. There was also a pledge to build 1.6m houses, which will surely put the wind up Labour, who promised 1.5mn.

The tax changes are slated to cost £17bn, which Sunak says he will fund by shaving £12bn off the welfare bill, and clamping down on tax avoidance. The fashionable critique is that the “easy” cuts to the welfare bill have already been made in previous waves of austerity (easy for whom?). The Institute for Fiscal Studies immediately said that £12bn figure was unlikely to be realised, and charities were quick to point out that further cuts to disability benefits were untenable. Sunak also plans to thin out the civil service and the NHS managerial tier, but the savings from those moves look more wishful than optimistic.

His problems, from an electoral perspective, run deeper than whether or not his figures add up: Sunak and the party overall are now considered by voters to be more likely than Labour to increase the tax burden. There’s a fundamental lack of credulity that Conservatives even intend to keep taxes low which, rightly or wrongly, didn’t exist five years ago. The size of his promises (and many of them are quite small) doesn’t matter if no one expects him to keep them.

From an internal party perspective, Sunak started the day with the threat of rebellion hanging over him. A cadre of MPs, including Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, reportedly had a radical “alternative” manifesto ready to drop if the real thing didn’t land. So now Sunak will be waiting to see what “landing” looks like.

The press were underwhelmed, some criticising his lack of ambition, others wondering what had happened to leaving the European Court of Human Rights, which from his rhetoric seemed to be on the prime minister’s mind, yet has not made it into his statement of intent. Whatever this manifesto could or could not deliver, it doesn’t seem to be Sunak’s ticket out of dodge.

What’s at stake

An illustration depicting cuts. Composite: Getty Images/Guardian Design

While both the Conservatives and Reform struggle to make this the “immigration election”, despite the issue steadily falling in saliency for voters, there remains a lot of confusion about the numbers. How many migrants are refugees and why has a government so focussed on reducing numbers actually presided over such a substantial rise? Carmen Aguilar García and colleagues explain:

The end of the ‘tens of thousands’ pledge

Theresa May and David Cameron were bold in their promises to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands”. But today the “tens of thousands” pledge rarely passes the lips of any Conservative candidate.

The last ONS estimates put long-term net migration – the number of people immigrating minus the number emigrating – at 685,000 in 2023.

This is below the 2022 high but still many multiples of the May/Cameron promise and higher than pre-Brexit levels.

While the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford said net migration was “unusually high” in 2023, it went on to say there was a “hint” in the sharp drop in visas granted early this year and an increase in student emigration that a long-expected fall in net migration would yet materialise.

Non-EU workers now outnumber those from the EU

The nationality of those immigrating to the UK has changed: from mid-2012 onwards the majority of people came from EU countries. The reversal occurred in 2021, impacted by the end of free movement among other factors.

ONS data shows that 85% of people arriving – for any purpose, including for work, study or family reasons – in the year ending December 2023 were from non-EU countries, compared with just over half in 2010 and an average of a third between 2013 and 2018.

Separate HMRC figures show there were more than 5.9 million people born outside the UK working in the UK in December 2023, close to two-thirds of whom were non-EU citizens.

Even sectors that once heavily relied on EU citizens – such as accommodation and food services, administration and the wholesale and retail sector – now employ more non-EU workers than those from the bloc.

Since 2022, the number of workers from outside the EU has steadily increased across all regions, while EU workers have decreased or remained static.

Winner of the day

British citizens abroad | Those living out of the country for more than 15 years will be allowed to vote in this general election for the first time, following a rule change. The Electoral Commission is concerned that, so far, only 100,000 of them have noticed.

Loser of the day

Red Bull | Labour’s plan to outlaw energy drinks for the under-16s has unleashed a chorus of hitherto shy opinion, that energy drinks, being weird, should be banned for everyone. This seems a little unfair, but never mind.

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Quote of the day

You sound to me like a guy in a pub who borrowed £50 three years ago. And you keep saying, don’t worry, I’ll pay you back. And then when you confront him in the pub, he says, ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow.’ You wouldn’t believe him, would you?

Nick Robinson, to Rishi Sunak in Monday night’s BBC Panorama interview

Number of the day


4,515

The number of candidates standing for election is the highest ever, nearly 40% more than there were in 2019. The rise is accounted for partly by Reform fielding candidates against Conservatives, which the Brexit party declined at the last minute to do last time round. It also represents a new Green strategy to fight as many seats as possible – this year, they’re standing in 629. There’s also been a surge in independent candidates, including George Galloway’s Workers Party of Great Britain, which is putting up PPCs for the first time.

Surprise attack of the day

Jeremy Corbyn holds a copy of the manifesto on stage at the launch of Labour’s General Election manifesto, at Birmingham City University, 2019. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

This came from Keir Starmer, who went for the Tory manifesto not because it delivers most to the richest fifth of households, nor for its incursions in the welfare budget, but because he believes it as unrealistic as Jeremy Corbyn’s, circa 2019. Surprising, because Starmer was part of the shadow cabinet that signed off that manifesto; also, because the two documents are not at all alike.

Read more

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Election staff count ballots for the 2024 European Parliament election at the Bayeux Town Hall counting center. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

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What’s on the grid

Tomorrow 11am | The Green Party co-leaders Adrian Ramsay and Carla Denyer launch their manifesto at Sussex County Cricket Ground.

Tomorrow 7pm | The pre-recorded interview at the centre of Rishi Sunak’s D-day gaffe airs on ITV.

Tomorrow 7.30pm | Sunak and Keir Starmer each face questions from Sky News’s Beth Rigby, and then from a live studio audience, in Grimsby.

The Guardian

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