Revealed: How A Letter From Dominic Raab Inspired Labour's Attacks On Rishi Sunak

The justice secretary warned about the consequences of sending too many criminals to prison.
Keir Starmer has taken the gloves off with personal attacks on Rishi Sunak
Keir Starmer has taken the gloves off with personal attacks on Rishi Sunak
Benjamin Currie/HuffPost

If it is true that there is no such thing as bad publicity, then it has been a very good week for the Labour Party.

At 2.48pm last Friday, an incendiary graphic was posted on the party’s official Twitter account.

“Do you think adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison?” it asked, before adding: “Rishi Sunak doesn’t.”

It was based on Ministry of Justice figures showing that 4,500 such offenders had avoided jail since 2010 - five years before the prime minister even became an MP.

The backlash was swift, with politicians from across the political spectrum - including senior Labour figures such as John McDonnell - condemning the line of attack.

Twitter even added a “context” note pointing out that the Conservatives do indeed support the jailing of child sex offenders.

But by this morning, the offending tweet had been viewed 22.1 million times.

Throw in days of media coverage over Easter - including a Keir Starmer article in the Daily Mail defending the attacks - and it’s easy to see why Labour officials are quietly delighted with how it landed.

“If it shines a spotlight on the Tory record, that’s a good thing - we make no apologies for that,” said one senior figure.

“People’s lives are being made a misery by crime and the Tory answer is always ‘what are you complaining about’? Making it impossible for them to keep sticking their heads in the sand is what people expect and deserve of an opposition.”

The tweet that started the row
The tweet that started the row
Labour Party

HuffPost UK can now reveal that the idea for the campaign was triggered by a report last month in Inside Time, which describes itself as “the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees”.

It said that Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, had written to the Lord Chief Justice urging the courts to send fewer criminals to England’s overcrowded jails.

In his letter, Raab said: “You will appreciate that operating very close to prison capacity will have consequences for the conditions in which prisoners are held.

“More of them will be in crowded conditions while in custody, have reduced access to rehabilitative programmes, as well as being further away from home (affecting the ability for family visits).”

In response, Lord Justice Edis, the Senior Presiding Judge of England and Wales, said courts should now “have an awareness of the impact of current prison population levels” when passing sentence.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “Sentencing is a matter for the independent judiciary and judges as a matter of law are able to take a range of factors into account when handing down sentences.”

“Raab’s letter to judges telling them to go soft on criminals because the justice system is broken was a gift,” a Labour source said. “As soon as it happened, a plan started coming together.”

Dominic Raab warned about the problems of prison overcrowding.
Dominic Raab warned about the problems of prison overcrowding.
Jordan Pettitt via PA Wire/PA Images

The graphics were designed and drawn up and the decision was taken to launch the campaign on Good Friday - a traditionally-quiet news day - for maximum impact.

Although Starmer was not personally involved in the process, he fully endorsed the message, telling the Daily Mail: “I stand by every word Labour has said on the subject, no matter how squeamish it might make some feel.”

One Labour insider said: “Keir’s got far bigger things to fill his day than Twitter graphics. He’s more concerned about winning the next election so we can get on with sorting out the mess Tories have made.”

Nevertheless, it was a dramatic change in approach for a man who has previously insisted that "honesty and decency matter" in politics.

An ally told HuffPost UK: “Keir doesn’t really get too hung up on the personal stuff. You don’t spend five years running the prosecution service if you’re precious.

“For years the Tories pumped out attacks on him and Labour - for them to cry about getting some back is a bit rich.”

Undeterred by the angry backlash, Labour doubled and then tripled down with more graphics personally blaming Sunak for the failures of Tory governments dating back to David Cameron’s time in Number 10.

“The Tory record over 13 years is appalling,” a source said. “They’ve crashed the economy, broken the NHS and let dangerous criminals out of prison.

“We make no excuses for challenging them on the things people care about. If they are so bothered they should apologise for what they’ve done and fix it. Instead, they are pearl clutching over someone standing up them.”

A Starmer ally said: “One day, Rishi Sunak’s supporters were pretending the Tories’ record has nothing to do with him, and the next, he was trying to claim credit for the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed by a Labour prime minister when he was still in long shorts. He can’t have it both ways.”

The official Tory response to the Labour onslaught has been to largely ignore it, with Sunak refusing to be drawn into the row when asked about it in a ConservativeHome interview on Thursday afternoon.

But few doubt that the Conservative retaliation, when it comes, will be just as personal and nasty as anything Labour have done in the past week.

We are probably still 18 months out from the next general election, but it is already shaping up to be one of the dirtiest ever.


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