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PMQs verdict: Sunak and Starmer swap pointed jeers for sombre consensus amid Israel-Hamas conflict

Prime Minister’s Questions is usually a shouty, jeery affair — a merciless bear pit where any sign of weakness is greeted with a wall of noise from MPs sat directly opposite. 

Before the House rose for recess, politicos foretold of even fierier clashes as Rishi Sunak transitioned into a more attack-ready, aggressive politician. We saw this new approach debuted throughout the recess period: first on net zero, and culminating in the PM’s conference set-piece when he came out swinging against a stale “30 year consensus”.

But thanks to events in the Middle East, this was a distinctly sombre PMQs — where the usual confrontational tone was replaced with serious reflection. Consensus, after all, was the order of the day. 

“Sunak 2.0” will have to wait some time yet for his commons debut, it seems. 

As for Keir Starmer, there was no mention of the PM’s decision to scrap the Manchester leg of HS2 in Manchester, no mocking of his imagined “meat tax”, no mention of two crucial by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth tomorrow. Bar a brief welcoming to the new Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, the party politics was parked. All six of Starmer’s questions concerned the Israel-Hamas conflict and its implications at home and abroad. 

But for Starmer, who never seems to much enjoy the rowdy side of PMQs, this was far from unfamiliar territory. It was a throw back to the start of the pandemic when the newly coronated Labour leader vowed to provide “constructive opposition”. This mode of politics returned today, and Starmer consciously exuded statesmanlike seriousness.  

Yesterday, a constellation of Labour MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling for cessations of hostilities to protect citizens in Gaza. Signatories included Richard Burgon, John McDonnell as well as now-independent MPs Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn. Still, Starmer cleaved closely to the script he had set himself on the Israel-Hamas conflict over the past few days — coming party management difficulties notwithstanding. 

Indeed, the Labour leader did not use his questions to criticise the government. Rather, he raised concerns about hostages and hate crimes to “hear hears” across the commons floor. Starmer called on MPs to approach the conflict with a united voice and stressed the “disgusting rise” in antisemitism since the Hamas attack alongside an “appalling surge” in Islamophobia.

The prime minister could only agree. Conservative MPs nodded along. 

Starmer did urge Israel to act within international law, but his fury was directed at Hamas, which he said had no regard for “the safety of Palestinian people”.

In his exchanges today, which of course were not limited to Starmer’s questions, the prime minister, likewise, had to come across a stately and serious. He outlined measures the UK government was taking to support those in Gaza, including speaking with the Emir of Qatar, telling MPs “we are working round the clock” with partners and allies to secure the freedom of the hostages taken by Hamas.

The cross-party consensus was strained slightly when SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn took to the fore — calling for Sunak to urge a ceasefire. “I hope we all share the same common humanity of protecting civilians and condemning any acts of collective punishment against the Palestinian people”, Flynn said.

The PM responded that he “believes Israel does have a right to defend itself, to protect its people and to act against terrorism”.

Away from the frontbench exchanges, Crispin Blunt, the former Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee, warned that the government could be complicit in war crimes in Gaza. Sunak shied away from calling for any restraint from Israel: “It’s worth repeating that Hamas is a terrorist organisation that embeds itself in civilian populations”, the PM said. 

One interesting moment before PMQs got underway was when the Conservatives’ newest MP Lisa Cameron, who defected from the SNP last week, crossed the floor to take her seat. Former prime minister Theresa May escorted Cameron to the government benches where she sat alongside Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross through the questioning that followed. 

Starmer and Sunak struck the same sombre tones at PMQs today. If the prime minister and the leader of the Labour Party can put the point-scoring aside, so can we dispose of our entirely arbitrary scoring system. PMQs verdict: N/A

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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