Before prime minister’s questions began today, Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle rose to remind members of their responsibility to show restraint in their choice of language. “I just say to everybody, temperate and moderate language is what I want in this chamber”, Hoyle pleaded with MPs.
You can never be too careful with home secretary James Cleverly around; his foul-mouthed chuntering at PMQs last week caused quite the storm, and it would soon prove relevant to today’s proceedings.
Hoyle also criticised MPs who fail to notify their colleagues when they are visiting their constituencies. “This discourteous way to colleagues is not acceptable”, he said. It was another timely intervention from the Speaker. For Keir Starmer, clutching his papers on the opposition frontbench, was preparing to park his tanks on the Tories’ lawn on migration.
PMQs pundits have gotten used to the Labour leader taking on Rishi Sunak over issues that Conservative PMs, typically, train most for. But there are few issues Sunak can much rely on in today’s political landscape — certainly not immigration, after figures released last week saw net migration revised up to 745,000 in the year to December 2022.
With a Conservative civil war rumbling on in the background, Starmer accused the PM of breaking promises from the party’s 2019 manifesto to reduce net migration, in a line of questioning New Conservative doyens Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger would have been proud of. It triggered Sunak’s stock response: “The levels of migration are far too high and I’m determined to bring them back down to sustainable levels”, he said.
He then took aim at the Labour leader: “All we’ve heard up until this moment from the honourable gentleman on this topic is a secret backroom deal with the EU that would see an additional 100,000 migrants here every year”.
In theory, this is a tried a tested strategy: pillory Starmer on his remainer credentials and corral once-concerned backbenchers behind you with a Brexit carrot. The prime minister attempted this in almost every exchange with Starmer in today’s session. It is highly revealing of Sunak’s political woes that his MPs seemed distinctly disinterested.
And so Starmer continued to hit Sunak where it hurts, this time building in a gag about the PM’s decision to snub the Greek prime minister over his Elgin Marbles stance. “Never mind the British Museum — it’s the prime minister who has obviously lost his marbles”, the Labour leader quipped.
But his demeanour hardened as he pressed the prime minister on the details of the row: “A fellow NATO member, an economic ally. One of our most important partners in tackling illegal immigration. But instead of using that meeting to discuss those serious issues, he tried to humiliate him and cancelled at the last minute”.
The rebuke was illustrative of Starmer’s canny decision this PMQs to elide the issues of illegal migration and the Elgin Marbles. It is a skill the Labour leader and his writing team have honed in recent months, as Starmer takes on Sunak armed with a slew of intersecting and overlapping bad news stories.
The Labour leader subsequently accused the 5ft 6 inch prime minister of indulging in “small politics” and waging a “one-man war on reality”. (It’s not the first time Starmer has invoked Sunak’s height at PMQs, having previously suggested the No 10 gig was “too big” for the PM).
Sunak snapped back with another Brexit-soaked riposte: “No one will be surprised that he’s backing an EU country over Britain”, he said of Starmer.
He added: “Just this last week he was asked which song best sums up the Labour Party. What did he come up with? Well, Mr Speaker, he showed his true colours and chose Ode To Joy. Literally the anthem of the European Union. And he will back Brussels over Britain every single time!”.
The Labour leader brushed off the attack, unsupported as it was by Sunak’s backbenches. He said the PM had “lost control” of migration as he broached the Conservatives’ deepening political divides:
This is a government not just in turmoil, it’s in open revolt. … The immigration minister thinks the prime minister is failing because apparently nobody will listen to his secret plan. The former home secretary thinks he’s failing because of his magical thinking. The current home secretary took time out of his busy schedule insulting the North East to admit he agrees with Labour.
Then came the Labour leader’s coup de grâce. After accusing the PM of being “lost in La La land”, he explained: “There could be few experiences more haunting for the members opposite than hearing this prime minister claim that he’s going to sort out a problem”.
First, he said he’d get the NHS waiting list down. They went up. He said they’d get control of immigration. It’s gone up. Following that experience, he turned his hand to bringing taxes down. And would you believe it? The tax burden is now going to be higher than ever.
It is ironic, he’s suddenly taken such a keen interest in Greek culture. He’s clearly become the man with the reverse Midas touch.
Former Labour leader John Smith first deployed the line in June 1993 to taunt John Major; but it was more effective here. The decision to invoke Smith, certainly, will highlight fears within the Conservative Party that Sunak is Major’s spiritual successor — destined for a similar electoral routing.
But he also used the quip as an opportunity to mock an already visibly agitated Cleverly. Everything the “reverse Midas” Sunak touches, Starmer declared, “turns to [— pause for effect—] maybe the home secretary can help me out here.”
Sunak looked sad, defeated, meek, like he wanted the green benches to swallow him whole. But commons’ green leather pews refused to comply and so, with a final huff of political desperation, he tried to rally his hushed Conservative MPs with a final line.
“Britain isn’t listening”, he goaded Starmer. No, no they weren’t. With the Speaker already on his feet to call the next questioner, the prime minister’s mic had been switched off.
It summed up a truly shocking day for Sunak at the despatch box. Maybe next time he should start with the mic off.
PMQs verdict: Starmer 6, Sunak 0.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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