Starmer dodges Abbott questions as Sunak defends cash-for-towns pledge

Sir Keir Starmer declined to answer questions about Diane Abbott, while Rishi Sunak denied claims he is buying votes with a promise of cash for towns as campaigning entered its second weekend.

Both leaders on Saturday unveiled their parties’ battle buses, which will travel across the country before polling day on July 4.

The Labour leader launched his red campaign coach, emblazoned with the party’s key slogan “Change”, in west London with a pledge to get people back to work.

Sir Keir refused to be drawn into talking about the Diane Abbott row, telling broadcasters in Uxbridge: “I dealt with that issue yesterday.”

The Labour leader on Friday finally gave the veteran left-winger the green light to stand for his party in the election, after days of questions over her future and party infighting overshadowed his campaign.

General Election campaign 2024
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and deputy Angela Rayner launch Labour’s campaign bus in Uxbridge (Lucy North/PA)

While Sir Keir sought to move on from the matter, Mr Sunak attacked his Labour rival for changing his mind after having insisted the decision over Ms Abbott’s candidacy was not up to him.

In a speech in front of the Tories’ blue battle bus on Redcar Racecourse, the Prime Minister said “It confirms what we know about him: it’s that he doesn’t stick by anything he says”.

He also accused Sir Keir of caving to his deputy Angela Rayner, after she first threw her weight behind Ms Abbott’s candidacy.

But Ms Rayner dismissed claims she pushed her boss into the decision as “rubbish”.

Mr Sunak meanwhile was stung by a new Opinium poll giving Labour a 20-point lead over his party – the highest level Opinium has recorded since Liz Truss’s troubled premiership.

Despite Labour’s week being marred by the Diane Abbott saga, the poll showed Sir Keir’s party on 45% – up four points since last weekend – while the Conservatives are down two percentage points on 25%.

On his election trail, Mr Sunak batted off criticism that his pledge to give 30 towns £20 million was targeted mainly at Tory ­constituencies.

As part of the “levelling-up” scheme, the Conservatives pledged that local people, not those in Westminster, will decide how the money will be spent.

Some of the towns proposed to be added include Tamworth, Preston, Corby, Halifax, Bognor Regis, Newtown, Flint, Perth and Newry.

More than half of the towns – 17 – standing to benefit were represented by Tory MPs in the last parliament.

Asked about accusations that he is trying to buy votes there, Mr Sunak told broadcasters: “These 30 towns come on top of the 70 towns that have been announced – that’s 100 towns across our country that are going to receive £20 million each.”

He said the methodology used to select the towns had been used “multiple times before” based on “an objective set of criteria”, including “levelling-up needs, looking at economic opportunities, skills, health and life expectancy”.

General Election campaign 2024
Rishi Sunak launches the Tory battle bus in the North East of England (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Mr Sunak also insisted he is “going right across the country” when asked about his campaign’s focus so far on seats that are being defended at the election by the Conservatives.

The Tory leader said he is the only one “that’s actually got a plan” to get people back to work as he dismissed Labour’s proposals.

Sir Keir announced a number of proposed employment support and welfare benefits reforms aimed at increasing the employment rate from 75% to 80%.

This includes a new combined national jobs and careers service, local plans for work, health and skills support and a guarantee of opportunities for young people.

The Institute For Public Policy Research (IPPR) said the policy signals a “major step” towards a “high-quality, public employment service”.

“A rethink of our employment support offer is long overdue – and joining up health, skills and work support is a common-sense priority for any party serious about building a healthier and more prosperous country,” Rachel Statham, associate director at the think tank, said.

Sir Keir launched the Labour battle bus alongside Ms Rayner, who then set off on a 5,000-mile journey to battleground seats.

Meanwhile, after a week of attention-grabbing stunts, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey was taking the weekend off the campaign trail to care for his son.

Sir Ed tweeted: “This weekend I get to do the most joyful and important thing I do: being a Dad.”

His party issued a warning that an extra 100,000 households will be hit by a mortgage hike between now and polling day.

The average homeowner will have to fork out £240 a month, or nearly £3,000 a year, more, according to Lib Dem analysis of House of Commons Library research.

“The Prime Minister is set for a blue wall reckoning in key battleground seats,” Lib Dem Treasury spokesperson Sarah Olney said, as “every day thousands of families are seeing their mortgage go up by eye-watering amounts”.

Nigel Farage, Reform UK’s honorary president, was out campaigning in Ashfield with candidate Lee Anderson.

Mr Anderson, the former Tory deputy chairman, was the party’s only MP ahead of the dissolution of parliament after his defection from the Conservatives.

George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain was launching its General Election campaign in Ms Rayner’s Ashton-under-Lyne seat.