Campaign catchup: Farage’s dodgy sums, tactical voting, and a Lib Dem showpony

<span>The Reform party manifesto launch.</span><span>Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
The Reform party manifesto launch.Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Good afternoon. Reform’s gimmick at the launch earlier of their manifesto – which they are calling a “contract”, because “when I say manifesto you think lie” – was for Nigel Farage and Richard Tice to sign it. But when it came to the big moment, Nigel didn’t have a working pen.

If that had been him, Rishi Sunak might bitterly reflect, it would have been viewed as the kind of symbolic unforced error that would justify further headlines about his campaign being in chaos. But nobody really noticed, because Farage has momentum, and a narrative, on his side.

It is true nonetheless that this is not a contract which Reform is ever likely to have to make good on. More on the improbable claims and unachievable promises it contains, as well as a nice picture of a horse, after the headlines.

What happened today

  1. Brexit | Labour would try to improve elements of the UK’s trade deal with the EU, Rachel Reeves has suggested. Areas where Labour could seek closer alignment with EU rules could include the chemicals sector and a revised deal for workers in the City of London.

  2. Energy | The SNP has called for a social tariff to guarantee cheap energy bills for people who are poor, disabled or elderly. The party’s leader John Swinney said the same concept should be applied to broadband and mobile phone bills.

  3. Welfare | Keir Starmer is facing renewed pressure to scrap the two-child benefit limit, as research reveals that 250,000 more children will be hit by the policy over the next year alone. Labour’s manifesto promised an “ambitious strategy to reduce child poverty”, but did not mention the two-child limit.

Analysis: The manifesto that doesn’t add up

Reform has little chance of winning any seats in Wales, but it launched its manifesto in Merthyr Tydfil all the same. That is because Labour is in power there, and Nigel Farage wanted material for his number one assertion of the campaign so far: because Keir Starmer is already sure to win, this election is really about who the opposition will be. (I wrote about why that’s a dubious argument last week.)

That reflects the unspoken contradiction in Reform’s branding of its manifesto as a contract – a term it says it is using because it will really do the things in it, even though Farage also said, when accused of making “a wish list rather than a serious plan”, that “we are not going to be in government”. The contractual offer, then, can only be to talk about all of this a lot. And that certainly looks more achievable than putting it into practice.

Perhaps it’s a mug’s game to scrutinise such a document for evidence of how any of this would really work. But it is striking that – even as Labour’s anaemically cautious manifesto is reasonably criticised for accepting the drastically narrowed horizons of the Conservatives’ fiscal rules – Reform, supposedly a party devoted to spending taxpayers’ money wisely, is enjoying a moment in the sun despite so cheerfully plucking its numbers from thin air.

Peter Walker and Sandra Laville have a full list of the proposals here. The jaw-dropping bottom line, referenced on a single page of sums that could only look more like the back of a fag packet if it featured a picture of a disintegrating lung, is that Reform thinks that it can deliver savings and additional growth of £160bn per year. There is no suggestion that it will take time to get there: just £160bn extra cash on the books by July 2025, simple as that.

These numbers come with no associated costs, like the extra money that would have to be spent on NHS and social care staffing after £5bn is allegedly saved by instantly cutting net migration to zero – or the loss of economic benefits associated with moves towards net zero by abandoning all government work there, even if you accept the nonsensical assertion that man-made climate change is no big deal. There is no explanation of how “£5 in £100” savings on “government departments, quangos, and commissions” will be made without producing many furious taxpayers suddenly deprived of basic services. (As ITV’s Anushka Asthana pointed out, the entire salary bill of the civil service is £16bn.)

Nor does the document explain how stopping interest payments to banks on quantitative easing reserves, an obscure technical measure that the IFS says could save under £20bn per year over a short period, will instead make £35bn per year indefinitely. Meanwhile, the total pledges in tax cuts and additional spending come to £141bn a year - only a bit less than the Greens, Sky’s Ed Conway pointed out, and vastly more than the other UK-wide parties. “Even with the extremely optimistic assumptions about how much economic growth would increase, the sums in this manifesto do not add up,” the IFS said in a withering response to the launch.

Farage and Tice are supremely unfussed about all of the above – but it was interesting that their political antennae appear to suggest that these economic issues, however perversely presented, are a more compelling proposition to their potential voters than the culture war issues they have sought to make their own over the last couple of years.

The manifesto includes some deeply weird suggestions, like an order to pair any teaching about British or European imperialism “with the teaching of a non-European occurrence of the same to ensure balance” – but they barely featured at the launch. Instead, Farage said, the subject of his willingness to say the unsayable was now the economy: “We simply cannot go on like this. We are skint. Who else would dare say that in this campaign?”

As always with Farage, he is glomming onto a very real source of anxiety, and proposing a set of easy answers that allow him to paint his rivals as cowardly for rejecting them. There is no doubt that, for the subsection of voters who are prepared to give him a hearing, this has a chance of working. But even as we reflect on the impact Reform is having on this election over the next couple of weeks, it seems important to start from the right basic premise: this isn’t a contract. It’s a caricature.

What’s at stake

Diane Abbott’s constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington has seen one of the most divisive storylines of the campaign so far – but now that Abbott’s place as the party’s candidate has been belatedly assured, her victory looks all but certain. Nonetheless, voters tell Lanre Bakare for the latest in the Guardian’s Path to Power series, the scale of the challenge for the next government in their area is vast.

At Ridley Road Market, stallholder Benedicta Amadarkoa (above) says that the cost of living crisis is making her business selling fried fish much harder to sustain:

Amadarkoa can measure the impact of inflation by how much her Tilapia – a fresh water fish from west Africa – costs from wholesalers. A couple of years ago it was £18 for 10kg, now that’s risen to £35. “You could sell it cheap, it’s huge fish and people liked it. But now people say it’s too expensive.”

And gentrification in the area has led to a “baby bust” which is closing valued local primary schools, says Helen James, who is campaigning to keep Colvestone primary school open:

She acknowledges falling birth rates have contributed to smaller class sizes … [but] believes Hackney is increasingly being made unaffordable for families.

“We haven’t put in plans to keep families here, there’s been no investment in local family housing,” she said. “People couple up, have a kid and they can’t afford to stay here. We’re going to end up in a space where Hackney has no children. This is not purely down to falling birth rates, it’s about supporting your local community.”

Winners of the day

Fans of proper football shirts, after Keir Starmer caught hell from the Daily Mail over a photo with Angela Rayner and others watching England against Serbia last night: “Sir Keir was the only one not wearing an England-branded shirt, even though he is known to own one.” There was some mitigation found for Rishi Sunak in his own picture: he “also failed to wear an England shirt but had two St George’s flags in a pint glass on the table.”

Loser of the day

Carla Denyer, Green co-leader and candidate for Bristol Central, after the Best for Britain anti-Tory tactical voting group recommended a vote for Labour in that constituency – even though it is a straight fight between the two parties with no prospect of a Conservative victory. Best for Britain said that was because Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire “has been an excellent MP on the issues that we care about, including Europe”.

MP achieving state of Zen acceptance of the day

It’s Grant Shapps, who doubled down on his “supermajority” warning last week by dodging a question from the BBC’s Mishal Husain about whether it was a good time to call an election; endured another from Sky’s Kay Burley about how it feels to know “that your political dreams are over”; and said on Times Radio: “It’s possible to win the election. Do I accept it’s not the most likely outcome? Yes, I accept that. I’m a realist.”

Quote of the day

We are now at the stage where the only thing that stops an unprecedented result, like those seen in most projections, are things that are themselves unprecedented

Election data analyst Dylan Difford for Sam Freedman’s Substack, Comment is Freed (£), on why the “it can’t happen” responses to the Tories’ dire polling are probably wrong.

Number of the day

***

69%

Fall in the number of planning applications called in annually by the secretary of state since the Conservatives first came to power in 2010 – a key factor in the UK’s acute housing shortage, according to this Bloomberg piece.

Dubious photo opportunity of the day

This goes to miniature horse Cammie, who has displayed a frankly undignified appetite for media coverage by posing with herbivorous showpony/Scottish Lib Dem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton in South Queensferry.

Read more

Listen to this

The economy and Labour’s post-election dilemma – Today in Focus

Heather Stewart explains how the party’s central economic message could help it win power but then constrain it in office

What’s on the grid

Tomorrow, 7am | Keir Starmer participates in a phone-in on Nick Ferrari’s LBC show.

Tomorrow, 10.40pm | Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay interviewed by Nick Robinson on BBC One as part of Panorama’s pre-election series.

Tomorrow | Last day to register to vote. Do it here.

Tomorrow | Register of political donations published for May.

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