©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: LOTO confusion in the chamber as Starmer boasted by-election victories

There was some confusion over who the Leader of the Opposition (LOTO) was at prime minister’s questions today. At one point, when Keir Starmer was due to speak, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle motioned to Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who was down on the order paper for a pop at the PM. 

Although the Northern Ireland select committee is an esteemed body, Sir Linday’s involuntary promotion of its chair, Hoare, to LOTO prompted a great deal of laughter in the chamber — and some confusion from Starmer as he bobbed through the Speaker’s gaffe. 

Hoare later joked it was the “first time I’ve been confused with the Leader of the Opposition”. Sir Lindsay guffawed: “There’s been many rumours”.

On another occasion, the Speaker scolded Rishi Sunak for giving an extended pre-prepared speech about Labour’s housing policies. But, before the PM could finish his question about how Starmer “stood in the way” of plans to “unlock 100,000 new homes”, Sir Lindsay rose to his feet. “Just to say, it’s prime minister’s questions, not opposition questions”, he insisted.

It won a sarcastic nod from the prime minister, and once more Sir Lindsay rose: “I’m sorry, prime minister. It is prime minister’s questions, I don’t need you nodding against my decision”. 

By my reckoning, it was Sir Keir Starmer with the six questions today — a privilege he is afforded because of his status as the leader of the second largest party in the commons. So, with Sir Lindsay’s confusion covered, how did he deploy them?

Not, as many had speculated, to clarify his stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict. (He was due for a meeting with concerned Muslim Labour MPs and Peers at 12.45 pm, immediately after PMQs, and may have feared further interventions would make matters worse after a botched Mosque visit and LBC interview blunder). Rather, at PMQs today, Starmer boasted about his party’s recent by-election victories in Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth. 

It is the second session in a row the Labour leader has been able to welcome a new MP to his backbench ranks; last week, Michael Shanks, who bested the SNP in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, was name-dropped by his party chief. 

But this time it was far more politically potent, as Starmer flaunted his party’s ability to rout the Conservatives in their own heartlands. 

The prime minister put on a brave face and laughed through Starmer’s barbs. He joked that the new member for Mid Beds might “support him more than the last one”, a reference to Nadine Dorries. It drew chuckles and knowing nods from all sides of the House.

But soon Sunak was down to business: “I did notice that the new member [for Mid Bedfordshire] said that they will be opposing new housing in their local area”, Sunak said — attempting to lever open a gap between what Labour says in parliament and on the doorstep.

After last week’s outbreak of harmony over the Israel-Hamas conflict, it was a break-neck return to political normality. Sunak added: “But with his track record of U-turns, who knows what his housing policy will be next week”.

As for Starmer, with those seismic by-election victories providing the perfect backdrop, the Labour leader seized on a post shared by the Conservative candidate for Tamworth, Andrew Cooper, in 2020 which suggested jobless parents who cannot feed their children should “F*** off” if they still pay a £30 phone bill.

Starmer insisted the candidate must have thought he was “following government lines” by “throwing expletives at struggling families”, as he told stories of both renters and homeowners being hit hard by rising costs and being “abandoned” by the government — especially since Liz Truss’ disastrous mini-budget last autumn.

Sunak was prepared for Starmer’s attempt to raise the spectre of Truss (he does this most weeks), as he declared the Labour leader “did support 95 per cent of the things it that ‘mini’-budget”. It prompted confused noises in the chamber and the press gallery alike, especially after it was announced yesterday that Sunak would be axing the cap on bankers’ bonuses — a policy straight out of the Trussonomics playbook. Indeed, scrapping the cap featured highly among Truss’ slate of policies in the “mini”-budget — and, crucially, Labour did not support it. 

This being the first “normal” PMQs after party conference season, there was a question of how far the prime minister would lean into his positioning as the “change candidate” — a standing he debuted at the Conservative fête last month. We quickly got our answer: “Politicians like him [Starmer] always take the easy way out”, said Sunak. “Whereas we’re getting on, making the right long-term decisions to change this country for the better — on net zero, on HS2, on a smoke-free generation, on education and energy security”.

“Contrast that to his leadership”, he added, “too cautious to say anything and hoping that nobody notices”.

The Labour leader dismissed the remarks, instead calling for a general election. “So will he just call a general election and give the British public a chance to respond as they did in Selby, Mid Beds and Tamworth? 

He wrapped up: “They’ve heard the government telling them to ‘F*** off’, and they want the chance to return the compliment”.

So jeery — even sweary — politics is back, it seems; but with Starmer under pressure within Labour on the Israel-Hamas conflict, a small victory here will be dwarfed by broader and growing party-management issues elsewhere. Still…

PMQs Verdict: Starmer 4, Sunak 2.

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

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