©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: Starmer guns for Sunak’s likely successor

Prime minister’s questions was never going to be the highest point of parliamentary drama today. The low-energy exchanges were, in essence, an admission that attention would soon turn to the more substantively significant commons event this afternoon: the debate on the SNP’s opposition day motion calling for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza.

Perhaps in knowledge of this fact, Keir Starmer undertook something of a change of pace at PMQs today. In sessions prior to the February recess period, the Labour leader would exhaustively list the Conservative Party’s woes and string them across his six Sunak-facing questions. He could have done the same this week — recent recession news and a brace of by-election routings last week would have neatly contoured his PMQs narrative. 

But, instead, Starmer invoked his consciously calm PMQs style of old — which he deployed so effectively against erstwhile antagonist Boris Johnson. The Labour leader’s cross-examinations of the former PM drew comments later implicated Johnson in a series of lies, of course — at least that was the verdict of the privileges committee on “partygate”. 

Starmer’s questioning today, naturally, was not directed at Rishi Sunak’s predecessor-but-one — but nor was his chosen subject the record of the now-PM. Rather, the Labour leader aimed today to get to the bottom of Kemi Badenoch’s war of words with former post office chair Henry Staunton. 

The firebrand business secretary, Sunak’s likely successor remember, has in recent days accused Staunton of “lying” over his insistence that he was told to “go slow on compensation for postmasters and limp to the next election”. 

‘Full of lies’: Kemi Badenoch hits back at former Post Office boss in Horizon row

By way of a brief summary: the saga began after Stauton’s interview with The Times, in which he first issued these remarks. An irate Badenoch, whose business brief includes dealing with Post Office matters, responded by launching into a broadside on X/Twitter. She claimed Stauton’s account was “full of lies”, adding that her call with the former Post Office boss “was with officials” who took a “complete record”. She promised to set the record straight with a ministerial statement in the commons on Monday. 

And, lo, on Monday, Badenoch doubled-down at the despatch box. She accused Stauton of spreading “a series of falsehoods” and providing “made-up anecdotes to journalists”. 

Kemi Badenoch accuses ex Post Office boss of spreading ‘a series of falsehoods’

The problem with Badenoch’s ministerial statement — in which she accused confused opposition MPs of “playing politics” — is that it did not set the record straight. And so it was left to Starmer today to prise the bottom-line truth out of the government. 

The Labour leader asked Sunak if he was prepared to repeat the allegation that the former Post Office boss “lied” when he said he was told to “go slow on compensation”.

In response, the PM claimed Badenoch “asked Henry Staunton to step down after serious concerns were raised, she set out the reasons for this and full background in the house earlier this week”. 

“But importantly we have also taken unprecedented steps to ensure that victims of the Horizon scandal do receive compensation as swiftly as possible and in full”, he added. 

Still, Starmer pursued the issue: “I appreciate the business secretary has put the prime minister in a tricky position, but will he commit to investigating this matter properly? Including whether that categorical statement was correct, and why rather than taking those accusations seriously she accused a whistleblower of lying?”.

The Labour leader’s call for an investigation went unanswered. 

Nonetheless, the big takeaway here is the PM’s notably non-committal approach and refusal to emphatically echo Badenoch’s claims. The key outcome of the session today, therefore, is that the business secretary seems more and more out on a limb over her Post Office war. Sunak appeared to be sending Badenoch a signal that this is her battle and one she must fight on her own.

So, with the prime minister unwilling to back Badenoch forthrightly in her war of words with Staunton, pressure will now rise on the business secretary to dispel remaining doubts as to her veracity  by making public any evidence she possesses as to her latest adversary’s alleged deceit. In this way, in a point of order just after PMQs ended, shadow leader of the commons Lucy Powell asked for clarification about Badenoch’s comments in the House on Monday. She questioned the deputy speaker’s to how MPs might be able to “get some transparency” over the episode. 

Of course, this saga is significant for manifold reasons — not least regarding what it says about the government’s ability to respond to sub-postmasters’ calls for justice. But it is politically potent, too; Kemi Badenoch is widely assumed to be in poll position to take over from Rishi Sunak as Conservative Party leader if he loses the next general election. But if she is unable to vindicate her position on Stauton beyond doubt, it follows that her standing in the Conservative parliamentary party and the broader Tory membership would lessen. The stakes are hence extremely high for the business secretary, whose reputation as a no-nonsense commons performer has endeared her to party activists for years now. 

In the end, an important question arises after today’s session: is Badenoch’s attack-is-the-best-form-of-defence politics her greatest strength or an underlying weakness? In recent memory, we can recall how Boris Johnson’s boosterish approach to tricky commons questions ultimately proved his downfall. Might the same come to pass for Badenoch — even before she reaches the top of her party’s greasy pole?

PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer 3, Rishi Sunak 3, Kemi Badenoch 0

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

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