©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer can’t lose as long as Rwanda plan looms

Once a week at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Parliamentary Conservative Party piles into the House of Commons chamber to cheer on Rishi Sunak and jeer his lawyerly opponent. But after thirty minutes of paper-waving and near-constant chuntering, they return to their Westminster offices where they readjust their focuses and begin plotting against the real enemy: each other. 

Today, the Conservative Party — that unruly bundle of factions, caucuses and groupings — is tearing itself apart over its Rwanda deportation scheme. Rishi Sunak insists he has a plan that will finally see some Rwanda-bound jets depart British tarmac before an election. But enough Conservative MPs disagree for the subsequent psychodrama to drown out the PM’s messaging. Keir Starmer, as ever, snipes from the sidelines. Rinse and repeat. 

Indeed, the Labour leader essentially had a free pass at Prime Minister’s Questions today, as he took the government to task over just about every aspect of its flagship deportation scheme. Starmer began by noting that the government has “lost contact with 85 per cent of the 5,000 people” due for deportation to Rwanda. “Has he found them yet?”, he asked mockingly. 

Rishi Sunak did not return with an answer. Rather, in the vacuum where a response should have been, the prime minister placed his pre-election slogan. “With him”, Sunak said, singling out Starmer: “we’d just go back to square one”.

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Keir Starmer, sensing an opening, continued. In fact, he asked the prime minister to detail the whereabouts of “lost” asylum seekers a further two times before he arrived at his prepared attack line: “He hasn’t got a clue where they are, has he? I can tell you one place where they aren’t — and that’s Rwanda”. The Labour benches erupted with laughter. 

Sunak responded by informing the Labour leader that is vital to have a “working deterrent” to stop the boats. “It’s the same thing again and again”, he strained as he criticised the Labour leader for attacking the Rwanda plan without his own boats-stopping solution. 

Staring down the barrel of despatch box, the prime minister accused Starmer of having: “no values, no conviction and no plan”. There were tentative signs of the government benches getting behind the prime minister — a smattering of cheers even broke out.

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The prime minister was desperate today to land a decisive blow on the Labour leader. He knows that Conservative MPs’ disdain for the slippery Starmer might be the only thing that trumps their loathing of each other. In this way, in a bid to seize the session, Sunak brandished a pamphlet on European Human Rights law — one written by aspiring “lefty lawyer” Keir Starmer in 1999.

But before the prime minister could get to his punchline, Speaker of the House Lindsay Hoyle sprung into action. “When I stand up, please sit down. Can I just say, we don’t use props in this House!”, he instructed of the PM before handing back to the Labour leader. The prime minister was deprived of his prepared zinger. 

The Labour leader, on the other hand, was ready with one of his own; he likened Conservative MPs to bald men “scrapping over a singular broken comb”.

With his backbenches rocking with laughter, Starmer once more referenced reports that the prime minister harboured private doubts over the Rwanda scheme as chancellor — his main focus in last week’s PMQs. He asked if there is any wonder “this gimmick is doomed for failure” when the PM “doesn’t believe in it”.

Rishi Sunak returned to the despatch box — this time certain not to induce the wrath of the speaker. He referenced Labour’s support of the ban on the Hizb ut-Tahrir terror group, despite Starmer’s legal defence of the group in the past. “When I see a group chanting ‘jihad’ on our streets, I ban them. He invoices them!”, he declared. The Conservative benches were really roaring this time. 

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Starmer, refusing to engage with wrangling over his past work as a lawyer, pressed ahead. He began listing those in the Conservative Party who have previously spoken of the doubts on the feasibility of the Rwanda plan, including the prime minister and the now-home secretary James Cleverly — someone who reportedly once described the scheme as “bat****”. Starmer chose not to censor himself, but no intervention from the Speaker’s chair was forthcoming. 

Sunak closed with a roll-call of his purported achievements, including cutting inflation. That is despite inflation rising to 4.0 per cent today — placing it at double the Bank of England’s target. 

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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