Rishi Sunak’s £2,000 Labour tax hike claim investigated by UK statistics regulator

Rishi Sunak’s hopes of pulling off a surprise victory in the general election appeared to have unravelled on another day in which the Tory campaign was beset by a series of crises.

In the wake of Tuesday’s debate on ITV, which had been crucial for Mr Sunak to start to close Labour’s poll lead of more than 20 points, he was being branded “a liar” by Sir Keir Starmer after the Treasury distanced itself from the prime minister’s allegations about Labour’s tax plans. This came as:

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer clashed on the implications of Labour’s spending plans (PA Wire)
Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer clashed on the implications of Labour’s spending plans (PA Wire)

The day began with the Treasury’s permanent secretary James Bowler distancing his department from claims Mr Sunak made to the nation in the ITV debate that Labour would have to increase taxes by more than £2,000 per household.

This was later followed by the Office for Statistics Regulation launching a probe into the figure, which was the centrepiece of the prime minister’s attack on the opposition in Tuesday night’s TV debate.

It sparked a barrage of condemnation from Labour’s shadow cabinet, with several of the party’s top politicians accusing the PM of deliberately lying to the public.

In response, a defiant Conservative leader and energy secretary Claire Coutinho doubled down, repeating the assertion.

In the first televised clash of the general election campaign, Mr Sunak had repeatedly pointed to analysis by Treasury civil servants he said showed a £38.5bn black hole in Sir Keir’s spending plans.

This would lead to each working household paying £2,094 more in tax under a Labour government, the PM said.

But Mr Sunak suffered a humiliating setback when the Treasury rubbished his claim.

Rishi Sunak during the ITV debate with Labour leader Keir Starmer (Jonathan Hordle/ITV) (PA Media)
Rishi Sunak during the ITV debate with Labour leader Keir Starmer (Jonathan Hordle/ITV) (PA Media)

His claims started to unravel on Wednesday morning when Ms Coutinho conceded on the Today programme that the £2,000 figure was spread over four years.

Soon after, in a dramatic and humiliating intervention for Mr Sunak, a letter emerged from Mr Bowler which he had written to the Labour Party to pour cold water on the claim.

Mr Bowler set out how the costings relied upon by Mr Sunak were nothing to do with impartial civil servants, and stressed that the Treasury was “not involved in the production or presentation of the Conservative Party’s document ‘Labour’s Tax Rises’ or the calculation of the total figure used”.

The figure “includes costs beyond those provided by the civil service and published online by HM Treasury”, he told shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones.

“I agree that any costings derived from other sources or produced by other organisations should not be presented as having been produced by the civil service,” Mr Bowler added.

In a scathing letter, he continued: “I have reminded ministers and advisers that this should be the case.”

Wes Streeting accused the Tory leader of lying (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Wes Streeting accused the Tory leader of lying (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Earlier, Paul Johnson, the director of the highly-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies, also hit out at the figure. He said: “The £2,000 per working household that the Conservatives are suggesting that Labour is committed to is not independently arrived at or verified. It has been calculated based on Conservative party assumptions about Labour’s spending plans.”

The £2,000 claim is now being looked at by the Office for Statistics Regulation.

It is not known precisely how long its investigation will take.

It would not be the first time the prime mister has been rebuked by the statistics regulator.

Last December, his claim that the government had reduced debt was challenged by the watchdog, whose chairman said the assertion “may have undermined trust in the government’s use of statistics”.

Senior Labour figures lined up to accuse the Tory leader of lying.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting told voters, “You can’t believe a word they say.”

He added: “Rishi Sunak lied to you. He’s sent his ministers out to lie to you.”

Sir Chris Bryant said the PM had looked the public in the eye and chosen to lie about Labour plans.

The shadow minister added: “Not once but repeatedly. Not as a slip of the tongue but on purpose. And he had been expressly told not to do so by the head of the Treasury. He’s desperate. He’s no better than (Boris) Johnson.”

And Labour’s national campaign coordinator Pat McFadden said: “There you have it. Rishi Sunak’s claim on tax is categorically untrue.”

Just minutes after the letter was made public, Mr Sunak again repeated the claim on X, posting that “Keir Starmer’s tax rises will cost working families £2,094.”

In the debate, Mr Sunak said Sir Keir would “cost everyone... thousands of pounds”.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Keir Starmer is throwing stones from a house made from the thinnest of glass.

“This is a man who has broken every promise he has ever made. It is now for him to explain whether he has ditched his policies yet again or intends to break his own fiscal rules. Last night he claimed that the mental health policy costed by officials ‘isn’t the Labour Party’s policy’ despite publicly committing to it only five weeks ago.

“The costings provided for this policy are the lowest estimate provided by the Treasury and available on their website.If he becomes Prime Minister, he won’t be able to just cry lies when presented with the reality that he needs to find £2,094 worth of tax per working household to fill his black hole.”

Leading pollsters warned Mr Sunak he risks voters doubting his honesty with the claim and advised him not to repeat it.

Luke Tryl, from More in Common, said: “In general this kind of thing tends to muddy the waters rather than leave people any the wiser. So I suspect some people will still just hear £2,000 tax rises, but for others it might make them start to question Sunak’s honesty.

“Overall, given Starmer didn’t rebut it immediately I think it probably does advantage the Tories in the short term, but given the letter they (the Conservatives) would be wise not to repeat it.”

Polling expert and Tory peer Lord Hayward said: “There is a very big risk for him in any claims, if they are seriously undermined… that the audience will doubt what is being said”.

The Lib Dems accused the PM of using dodgy statistics and labelled him a “pound shop Boris Johnson”.