©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer steals Sunak’s ‘flip flop’ attacks

The first question at PMQs today did not come from some lucky MP listed on the order paper — rather, it emanated from a chorus of Conservative backbenchers who collectively queried: “Where is Ed Davey?”.

The Liberal Democrat chief, under intense pressure over his role in the Post Office scandal, was absent from his usual spot above the SNP benches today. But that did not stop Lee Anderson, together with a horde of MPs on the government benches (many of whom likely preside over Lib-Con marginal seats), calling for Davey to quit. 

Referencing the Lib Dem chief’s infamous habit of calling on ministers to relinquish their high office, Anderson reasoned that the AWOL Sir Ed deserves a taste of his own medicine. “He should take his own advice and start by clearing his desk, clearing his diary, and clearing off”, the Conservative Party deputy chair blasted. 

Rishi Sunak passed up the chance to echo Anderson’s attack, instead ploughing on with his trailed Post Office announcement. Indeed, after much hinting yesterday and this morning, the prime minister told MPs: “Today I can announce that we will introduce new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated”. 

The PM later accused Stephen Flynn of “trying to politicise” the Post Office scandal — it came after the SNP Westminster leader listed those allegedly culpable from all corners of the House. Sunak notably did not confront his deputy party chairman with the same constructive criticism. 

Gripping the despatch box first the first time in 2024, Keir Starmer welcomed the prime minister’s announcement of new legislation on the Post Office scandal and “a new upfront payment of £75,000” for the wrongly convicted postmasters.

But 2024 is an election year and such bipartisanship will prove an evermore fleeting phenomenon. In this way, quickly dispensing of the frontbench consensus, Starmer turned to the government’s flagship Rwanda deportations scheme — apparently his preferred subject matter at Prime Minister’s Questions. 

One of the major stories that broke over the Christmas recess was the report that Rishi Sunak, in his former role as chancellor, had once questioned the efficacy of the Rwanda scheme. Referencing the reports, Starmer pilloried the PM: “What happened” to the “ambitious” MP who said the deportation plan was “the latest in a long line of gimmicks?”, he asked.

It wasn’t word-for-word Sunak’s reported objection to the plan — but such poetic licence is allowed in the theatre of the commons. Still, the PM did not deny the allegations outright; although he did dismiss them as “second hand” accounts. 

There emerged a distinct pre-election feel to the exchanges as Starmer hit back by claiming it is “hardly a surprise” the PM wanted to scrap the scheme “when he was trying to sneak in as Tory leader”. The Labour leader continued his line of attack: who should we listen to, he queried, the MP “before us today” or the one who “used to believe in something?”.

Sunak smirked — but so often at these sessions, such smiles are used to mask genuine hurt. That said, the Conservative backbenches found it hilarious that Starmer could accuse another politician of profligacy on principle. 

The prime minister refused to accuse the Labour leader of projection — a move which might have dampened the effectiveness of attacks to come. Rather, he insisted he had been “crystal clear” that an effective deterrent is needed to solve the issue of small boat arrivals.

Then came another pre-election jibe: “Every time he picks the people smugglers over the British people”, Sunak said, adding: “He doesn’t believe in controlling migration”.

Starmer again rose his feet, this time to accuse the prime minister of “flip flopping” over his choice of strategy. “Mr Steady, Mr Change, now he’s switched back to Mr More of the Same. It doesn’t matter how many relaunches and flip-flops he does. He’ll always be Mr Nobody”, he declared. 

Again, this “flip flop” line is a favoured attack line of Conservative MPs. CCHQ has even mocked up flip flops depicting Starmer’s face for sale on the party’s website (they can be yours for a mere £16.99). 

At PMQs today, therefore, the Labour leader was attempting to co-opt one of the Conservative Party’s most frequently used attack lines: that he is a principle-less, values-deficient politician. But today it was Sunak accused of being spineless. It must only be a matter of time before Sunak is mocked as “captain hindsight” by some Labour apparatchik — or as a “plastic, pointless human bollard”. 

But soon, Starmer retreated to more typical anti-Sunak territory, attacking the prime minister as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Britons. Listing a series of issues facing the country, including access to dentists, flood defences and children out of school, the Labour leader continued: “While he’s tending to the Tory party, the country is left without government”.

Deploying other tried and tested lines, Starmer accused Rishi Sunak of being “blissfully unaware of what is going on outside the walls of Westminster”, calling it “ludicrous” that he “boasts” about his achievements as PM “while Britain is breaking”. Stop the boasts!

Sunak responded by saying he was glad Starmer brought up schools as “in spite of Labour opposing every reform… our children are now the best readers in the Western world”.

“New year, new nonsense”, concluded Starmer. But, in truth, it was a pretty standard, relatively tame PMQs. In this first session of 2024, the respective party leaders could be seen debuting some new attack lines and honing some old ones ahead of an election still likely months away.

In fact, perhaps the biggest loser at PMQs was the absentee Sir Ed Davey. He, perhaps more than Rishi Sunak today, has some difficult questions to answer. 

PMQs Verdict: Rishi Sunak 3, Keir Starmer 3.

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

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