Labour is launching a fierce attack on Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s handling of the economy during the pandemic, saying his policies have cost jobs while leaving the UK with the highest death toll in Europe.
Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds will accuse her Tory opposite number of repeatedly taking the wrong policy options, with the Government setting up a “false choice” between protecting public health and the economy.
“The Chancellor has called this crisis wrong time and again,” she will say in a speech on Thursday to the London School of Economics.
Her attack comes at a time when Mr Sunak is widely regarded as the most likely successor to Boris Johnson if for any reason he was to step down as the Conservative Party leader.
He was widely praised in the early days of the pandemic last year for the rapid provision of massive financial support to protect the economy following the first lockdown, including the furlough scheme.
Over the summer, he was at the forefront of those Cabinet ministers pressing for an easing of restrictions to open up the economy, and reportedly resisted pressure for a retightening when cases picked up again in the autumn.
More recently he has come under pressure – including from some Tory MPs – over plans to withdraw some support, including a £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit, as he seeks to rebuild the public finances.
In her speech, Ms Dodds will say that trying to present the situation as a trade-off between the economy and public health has been self-defeating.
“At the heart of the Conservative Government’s mishandling of this crisis over the last 10 months has been an insistence that you can treat the health of a nation and its economy as distinct entities, to be traded off against one another,” she will say, according to advance extracts of her speech.
“You either ‘choose health’, and lockdown the economy completely in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading. Or you ‘choose jobs’, easing restrictions as rapidly as you are able to get people back to work.
“This narrative is not only untrue; it is self-defeating.”
She will say that Mr Sunak has repeatedly had to bring forward new support packages as he found himself “overtaken by events”.
“Much of this seems to stem from a belief that the economy is only well-served by a total lifting of restrictions and a removal of all economic support as soon as possible,” she will say.
“But with the virus sadly still with us and continuing to impact on demand, he needs to think again.”
Ms Dodds will say that the experience of the pandemic has shown that “managed social distancing” is essential.
“It has reduced the transmission of the virus and kept it under control – preventing the NHS from being overwhelmed – and avoided the stop-start nature of repeated lockdowns that causes so much economic harm,” she will say.