©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: Rishi Sunak stumbled as he vied for ‘Phil from Iceland’s’ vote

Prime minister’s questions began today with a sober appeal from Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who urged MPs to stop their shouting, put away the props and banish their bad language. Week after week, Sir Lindsay warns rowdy MPs he’ll send them out the chamber “for an early cup of tea” — so this was a signal, it seemed, that the Speaker had finally had enough.

From these comments, we can infer that Sir Lindsay probably had his eyes on a quiet clash today focussed, perhaps, on the prospect of a return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Keir Starmer could cite background as a human rights lawyer during the Troubles, and Rishi Sunak could hail the progress made in recent days as a product of his doughty professionalism. It would be a mild-mannered, jeer-free affair. 

But the Labour leader had other ideas. 

In the wake of news that the MP for Norfolk, George Freeman, quit as science minister in November in order to take other jobs to cover his mortgage payments, Starmer went in hard on the economy. 

The cost of living is an issue that Labour thinks our multi-millionaire prime minister is especially exposed on. Indeed, no matter the driving focus of Starmer’s PMQs questioning in recent weeks — be that the Rwanda deportation plan or some awkward squad onslaught — his comments have been framed by the view that Sunak does “not understand” Britain. 

The cost of living provides manifest opportunities to sneak in such attack lines. But, in truth, today, the PM rather made Keir Starmer’s argument for him. 

First, Starmer referred to Freeman with a worthy gag: “A Tory MP counting the cost of Tory chaos — after 14 years, have we finally discovered what they meant when they said ‘we’re all in this together’?”.

The line “We’re all in this together”, of course, is classic Cameron-speak — and was repeated incessantly by the former prime minister and present foreign secretary both before and after the 2010 election as austerity rolled in. 

Rishi Sunak returned the favour by referencing former Labour leader and present shadow energy secretary Ed Miliband, whom he suggested was Starmer’s “mentor”. (During the 2010-2015 parliament, Miliband was reported to have encouraged Sir Keir to apply for his current Holborn and St Pancras seat). The PM declared:

“It’s incumbent upon [the Labour leader] to explain to the British people how his policy of decarbonising the grid by 2030 is going to be funded. … All these years later it’s the same old story, the right honourable member for Doncaster North [Ed Miliband] has carved a promise in stone and everyone else just looks away in embarrassment” 

The prime minister also cited the recent national insurance cut and the mortgage charter that chancellor Jeremy Hunt introduced last year as examples of his government’s commitment to tackle the cost of living. It was paint-by-numbers politics on the cost of living; in fact, Sunak seemed by gaining the upper hand — going by the rowdiness of his backbenchers at least. 

But the Labour leader had a further, pretty tried and tested, trick up his sleeve. He told the House about an individual named “Phil”, an employee at Iceland in Warrington who spoke to the Labour leader this week about how his mortgage is going up by £1000 a month. “If the member for mid-Norfolk [George Freeman] on £120,000 can’t afford this Tory government, how on earth can people like Phil?”, Starmer said. It was canny questioning — tying together an SW1 bubble story with the broader national picture.

Of course, the Labour leader had visited Iceland this week following chief executive Richard Walker’s endorsement. Conservative MPs appeared to find the reference funny, with a fresh round of jeers breaking out in the chamber. 

As his backbenchers rallied behind him, Rishi Sunak prepared what he thought was the perfect response to Starmer’s taunts. He countered that the Labour leader should have informed Phil that Conservative stewardship of the economy has meant inflation is “less than half of what it was a year ago”.

“Thanks to this government”, Sunak added, “Phil and millions of others – not just at Iceland, but across the country – are benefiting this month, in their pay packets for a tax cut worth hundreds of pounds for someone on an average salary!”. 

He also asked if Starmer told Phil how much he might lose in “higher taxes” under Labour, amid laughter and jeering from Conservative MPs. Finally, the PM pondered whether Starmer had told Phil how he was going to pay for his “£28 billion spending spree”. 

Sunak is “so out of touch it’s unbelievable”, Starmer returned, adding that most people do not have lots of money “knocking around”. “Shame”, he said of Conservative MPs who had spent much of the previous questioning jeering. 

The PM doesn’t get how “hard it is” for people like the Iceland supermarket worker, Starmer continued, arguing that it is Sunak’s response to never take responsibility, show contrition or “any level of basic understanding”. In closing, he returned to former minister George Freeman who he claimed is “exhausted” — why doesn’t the PM call an election so “him and the whole country can move on?”.

Rishi Sunak rammed in some pre-prepared riff, ending with a plea to voters not to return to “square one” with Starmer. But the damage had arguably been done; someone track down Phil from Iceland and see what he makes of Sunak’s strained PMQs canvassing. 

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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