©UK Parliament

PMQs verdict: A fiery Sunak was told to calm down as Starmer savaged his record

With Christmas recess looming, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer clashed in the final prime minister’s questions of the year this afternoon.

Welcomed back to the commons umpire’s chair this week was Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle — after his deputy Dame Eleanor Laing covered for his Covid-induced absence last week. Fortunately, in his isolation, Sir Lindsay had clearly been practising his lines.

“It’s Christmas, but you might not want the Christmas present I could give you!”, he warned the chamber on at least two occasions. This was the Speaker embracing the inevitable quasi-pantomime feel of a pre-Christmas PMQs. 

Keir Starmer, himself feeling festive, began his line of questioning by pressing the PM on whether the Conservative Party had got the memo about Christmas “goodwill”. Sunak, to his credit, opted to see the funny side of his rebels’ Rwanda misfire yesterday: “It is also a time for families and under the Conservatives, we have a record number of them!”, he responded.

The PM’s quip here was a reference to the self-styled “five families” of Conservative right-wing groupings, who have dominated so much of SW1’s attention in recent days.

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Still, despite the fever pitch speculation, the aforementioned “families” could at best muster 29 abstentions in the vote on the Rwanda bill yesterday. It meant Rishi Sunak had good reason to feel jubilant today — and his improved standing in his party may have reflected by the roar from Conservative MPs that greeted his entry to the chamber.

But behind this wall of noise lays a difficult reality. Because while the mafia-cosplayers in his party may have merely abstained yesterday, the threat of a fuller rebellion when the Rwanda bill enters its committee stage in the New Year looms ominously over proceedings. 

This was the brutal reality that Starmer intended to assess and expose with his questions today. Indeed, the Labour leader stared down the benches opposite to him, amassed as they are with Sunak’s critics; going over the prime minister’s head, he engaged them directly in a novel session of Tory Backbenchers’ Questions. 

“Who was it who said ‘[Sunak] is a really bad politician’?”, he queried. “What about ‘inexperienced’?”, he added. “Oh, and there’s got to be some hands for this — [who said] ‘he’s got to go!’?”.

It was peak pantomime PMQs. And in the subtext sat the punchline: they’re behind you, prime minister!

With the Conservative benches quieted, Starmer continued: the PM is holding a Christmas party next week, “how’s the invite list looking?”. 

After “thanking” Starmer for his comments, Rishi Sunak mustered in response: “He should hear what [Labour backbenchers] have to say about him”. 

But there can be no denying the fact that Sunak and Starmer’s relative positions in their parties could not be more different. Indeed, in a largely unnoticed speech in Milton Keynes yesterday, Starmer continued to prosecute his war on the Labour Party — not only critiquing Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, but also his pre-Corbyn predecessors. One can only wonder what Ed Miliband made of it. 

But this unsubtle swipe at those many Labour MPs who served enthusiastically during the Miliband and Corbyn years simply did not register in his own party — much less inspire some crippling bout of party infighting.

Compare and contrast this to events in the Conservative Party yesterday. Of course, nor does Rishi Sunak dare criticise his predecessors as Conservative leader — lest he invoke the ire of their respective acolytes. 

Having assessed the state of the Conservative Party and subtly restated his own power within Labour, half way through his questioning today, Starmer subtly switched — pivoting from SW1 psychodramas to take stock of the state of the nation beyond. 

In this way, with Christmassy quips dispensed, Starmer showed the heart of his argument this afternoon to be deeply serious: while the Conservatives “fight amongst themselves, there’s a country out here that isn’t being governed”, he declared .

The Labour leader informed the House that there will be 140,000 children without a home over the festive season, as he rubbished Sunak’s responses as “tone-deaf”. “He just can’t see the country in front of him or what [his government has] done”.

“Doesn’t he think the government would be better off fixing the messes they’ve already made rather than scrambling to create new ones?”, he asked. 

Rishi Sunak entirely rejected the line of questioning, accusing the Labour leader of himself indulging in Westminster tittle-tattle with his preceding questions. 

So Sunak — buoyed perhaps by his commons victory today — took the fight to Starmer, launching into a staunch defence of his party’s record in government. Schools in England, he told the House, are performing better than any other UK nation “thanks to the reforms of this Conservative government”.

“Where are they plummeting down?”, he pondered, before unleashing that timeless Tory taunt: “In Labour-run Wales”. (Poor Mark Drakeford, who the PM paid tribute to in his opening remarks today). 

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Responding to Starmer’s question about homelessness during the festive season, Sunak cited Labour’s opposition to government reforms of EU laws — reforms he claimed would unlock 100,000 new homes.

“Typical, shameless opportunism”, Sunak shrieked as his mic flared — clearly unable to contain his confected rage. 

Sunak’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) Craig Williams leaned in to tell the PM to tone it down — that is, according to Labour MP Ben Bradshaw’s live tweeting.

With Keir Starmer’s despatch box duties wrapped up for another year, there was time for a genuinely substantive development at PMQs today. In response to a question from DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Sunak said the government stands “ready to legislate” to guarantee Northern Ireland’s place in the UK as part of efforts to restore the assembly in Stormont, in what looked like a rehearsed exchange. 

Could this be a sign that Stormont, out of action for 22 months, might be on the path to returning — with the DUP appeased with legislation on the UK internal market?

But, just in case you thought proceedings were getting rather too serious, Labour MP Sir Chris Bryant soon rose to ask about Rishi Sunak’s appearance in front of the Covid inquiry on Monday. He said:

“What’s worse? Losing your WhatsApp messages as a tech bro? Losing £11.8bn to fraud as chancellor? Presiding over the biggest fall in living standards in our history? Or desperately clinging on to power when you’ve become even more unpopular than Boris Johnson?”

It wouldn’t be a festive PMQs without a reference to Sunak’s Ghost of Christmas Past, his ever-conspicuous predecessor-but-one. 

Still, the prime minister refused to engage, instead telling the commons: “What matters to me is delivering for the British people, and that’s exactly what we’re doing”.

PMQs Verdict: Keir Starmer 4, Rishi Sunak 2

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

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