Rishi Sunak's cheerleaders in the UK's dominant Conservative supporting newspapers are urging on the government to press ahead faster and further with initiatives to drive wedges between Labour and the Tories ahead of the general election.

A champagne cork popped on The Sun’s front page (23.11.2023) as it applauded a tax cutting autumn statement that fired the starting gun for the 2024 campaign.

Labour faces a dilemma:

As the election stakes are raised, what happens if the shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves finds she has no alternative but go along with the cut in national insurance and any future tax cuts that might be announced in next year’s Budget?

Will the Opposition be forced to accept that an incoming government could face a corresponding cut in public expenditure of £20 billion or possibly far more?

How will Keir Starmer and Reeves grapple with the consequences of having to deliver unacceptable reductions in public services?

Confusion and uncertainty on this scale within the Labour leadership will be meat and drink to Conservative commentators who will relish every opportunity to exploit the Opposition’s discomfort.

There has been no slackening in the tribalism of the Tory tabloids since the EU Referendum in 2016 when they ruthlessly exploited fears over immigration to ensure a vote for Brexit.

Whatever the opinion polls might say, pre-election skirmishes over recent months indicate a confidence in their own ability to manipulate the news agenda towards policy divides aimed at causing Starmer and his team the greatest difficulty.  

Throughout the summer there was a full throttle assault by the Tory press on what was dubbed “The Great Green Divide” as the tabloids ramped up the backlash against the introduction of London’s ultra-low emissions zone.

Starmer was clearly troubled by Sadiq Khan’s determination come what may to apply the charge to outer London.

Labour’s failure to win the Uxbridge by-election in July allowed Sunak to seize the opportunity to embark on a rapid gear change to curb the spiralling cost of net zero pledges.

Within a week of the Conservatives’ unexpected victory at Uxbridge, the exclusive splash headline on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph (30.7.2023) answered the clamour for a government retreat on a raft of climate promises:

“I am on motorists’ side, says PM as he orders a review of anti-car schemes.”

Two days later The Sun published its “Motorist Manifesto” complete with a “Give Us a brake” logo. (1.8.2023).

A month later Sunak was being greeted with a blitz of favourable coverage across the Tory press for slamming on the brakes on the race for net zero.

“Given us a brake!” declared The Sun (21.9.2023) claiming victory for its campaign to delay “crippling net zero targets”, hailing the Prime Minister’s response for having “binned the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars” and the “2030 deadline to replace gas boilers with heat pumps”.

Since their ruthless exploitation of immigration scare stories when campaigning for a No vote on EU membership, the continued flow of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats has provided the Tory press with a regular line of attack.

In the run-up to the Conservative conference there was an ecstatic reception for a series of speeches by the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman when she promised reform of an “absurd immigration system”. (Daily Express, 26.9.2023)

Despite her ignominious departure from the cabinet following a series of disagreements with the Prime Minister -- culminating in her condemnation of “hate” marches in the wake of Israel-Gaza conflict -- nothing seems to have dented her determination to continue challenging Sunak for his failure to “stop the boats” and reduce immigration.

Judging by the stalwart support she has already received from the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph – “Braverman launches brutal attack on PM’s ‘betrayal’ of nation” (Daily Telegraph 15.11.2023) -- there is every indication that Conservative columnists and commentators will carry on applying pressure on her behalf. “Suella leads Tory Rebellion on migration” (Daily Mail, 24.11.2023)

The closer the general election, the greater the danger of this becoming a two-edge sword for the Conservatives’ prospects.

Exploiting immigration scare stories was a sure-fire winner for the Tory tabloids in their campaign to push for a vote for Brexit in 2016, but such tactics could easily backfire in the changed political landscape of 2024.

Raising the stakes on fears over immigration might do more to benefit UKIP’s successor the Reform Party and take votes from Conservative candidates.

Richard Tice, leader of Reform, says his party will stand a candidate in every seat at the election and their aim will be to punish the Tories for their broken promises.

He predicts that the long run up to polling day will become an “immigration election” – an ominous threat as far as Sunak is concerned but perhaps an opportunity yet again for Braverman to try to bolster her chances of becoming the Conservatives’ post-election leader.