Treasury rubbishes Rishi Sunak’s £2,000 tax hike election TV debate claim

The Treasury has rubbished Rishi Sunak’s claim Labour will put up taxes by £2,000 for every household - a major line of attack for the prime minister in Tuesday night’s TV debate.

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

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

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

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Then, within minutes in a dramatic and humiliating intervention for Mr Sunak, a letter emerged from Treasury permanent secretary James Bowler which he wrote to the Labour Party to pour cold water on the claim.

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer met for the first time on the campaign trail as they went head-to-head in a debate hosted by ITV (Jonathan Hordle/ITV) (PA Media)
Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer met for the first time on the campaign trail as they went head-to-head in a debate hosted by ITV (Jonathan Hordle/ITV) (PA Media)

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 said: “I have reminded ministers and advisers that this should be the case.”

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 of presentation of the Conservative Party’s document ‘Labour’s Tax Rises’ or the calculation of the total figure used”.

Jonathan Ashworth said the claim shows Rishi Sunak is ‘desperate’ (Getty Images)
Jonathan Ashworth said the claim shows Rishi Sunak is ‘desperate’ (Getty Images)

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.”

Leading pollsters warned Mr Sunak he risks voters doubting his honesty with the claim and said he would be wise 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”.

And it sparked a barrage of condemnation from Labour’s shadow cabinet, with a slew of the party’s top figures accusing the PM of having deliberately lied to the public.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused Mr Sunak of lying about Labour’s tax plans and claimed "you can’t believe a word they say".

He said: "Rishi Sunak lied to you. He’s sent his ministers out to lie to you."

Referencing the Treasury permanent secretary’s letter urging ministers not to repeat the false claim about Labour’s tax plans, Mr Streeting said: "They were told not to lie to you... you can’t believe a word they say."

Sir Chris Bryant said the PM looked the public in the eye and chose to lie about Labour plans in Tuesday night’s debate.

The shadow minister said: "Looking the public straight in the eye, Sunak deliberately chose to lie about Labour plans. 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 Johnson."

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

But 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”.

Opening the debate on Tuesday night, Mr Sunak said: “Beyond raising your taxes and raiding your pensions, no-one knows what Labour would actually do.

“But you know what I would do? I’ll cut your taxes, protect your pension and reduce immigration.”

Expanding on the accusation later in the show during a debate about climate change, Mr Sunak said Sir Keir would “reverse all of the changes I’ve made” which would “cost everyone and you thousands of pounds.”

Sir Keir was slow to challenge the claim, but eventually described it as “absolute garbage”. And he sought to turn the tables on Mr Sunak, dubbing the prime minister “the British expert on tax rises” and pointing to the 70-year high tax burden.

It came as Sir Keir and Mr Sunak slugged it out in a tetchy first leader’s debate of the general election. A snap poll after the debate pointed to a narrow win for Mr Sunak, but a survey published on Wednesday morning pointed to a victory for Sir Keir.

Mr Bowler’s letter comes despite energy secretary Claire Coutinho claiming he personally signed off on the sums (AFP via Getty Images)
Mr Bowler’s letter comes despite energy secretary Claire Coutinho claiming he personally signed off on the sums (AFP via Getty Images)

Despite Mr Bowler’s letter having been sent on Monday, energy secretary Claire Coutinho was still claiming the £2,000 sum as a Treasury figure on Wednesday. Defending its use, she told LBC: “This is something which has been costed by Treasury officials, so independent, impartial civil servants, and I thought it was very telling that Keir Starmer could not refute the £2,000 of extra working taxes.”

She even went on to claim the figure was personally signed off by Mr Bowler and that it was if anything an underestimate.

Shadow paymaster general Jonathan Ashworth said the £2,000 figure was “a desperate lie” and showed that Mr Sunak and the Conservatives are “desperate”.

He told Sky News: “Rishi Sunak has exposed himself as no better than Boris Johnson, who lied over parties in Downing Street in lockdown. He has exposed himself as no better and no different. He is desperate and he’s lying to the British public.”

The frontbencher said every Labour commitment during the election is fully funded and “we’re explaining where every penny piece comes from”.

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “We were fair to Labour in the production of the Labour Tax rise briefing note and used clear Labour policies, their own costings or official HMT costings using the lowest assumptions.”