©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer takes on Farage and Truss, the conservative cranks

New polling from Ipsos today reveals that former prime minister Liz Truss has a net favourability rating of -60. The figure means Truss is viewed more unfavourably than all of her fellow Conservative prime ministers, both former and current. Rishi Sunak, for instance, has a net favourability score of -34.

This, in essence, explains why Keir Starmer led on Liz Truss’ stateside antics at prime minister’s question this afternoon. 

The former PM spent much of last week visiting the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual get-together of Donald Trump sycophants. There, she rubbed shoulders with “Trump world” mainstay Nigel Farage and shared screentime with the serially conspiratorial Steve Bannon, a former Trump aide. 

In tune with her audience, Truss spent much of her time in the US blasting the “deepstate”, which she blamed for orchestrating her downfall as PM. The former PM, having returned to the drawing board after her brief premiership, declared that conservatives worldwide now need a “bigger bazooka” to take on the hostile state actors. 

“Who are these hostile state actors?”, you ask. Well, in the US, Truss suggested such nefarious forces as The Economist and The Financial Times conspired against her as prime minister. In other speeches, such as her slightly more UK-relevant PopCon broadside, Truss has specified her antagonists as including “environmentalists” and those who are “in favour of supporting LGBT people or groups of ethnic minorities”. Such labels are mere covers, Truss claimed, for the activity of conniving “socialists or communists”.

At CPAC last week, Truss was promoting her forthcoming book Ten Years to Save the West which is marketed unapologetically to a US audience. Her presence alongside Bannon, therefore, was merely an attempt to woo Republicans and bump up her pre-order numbers. 

But Truss’ transatlantic pandering is significant for other reasons, too; not least of all because it is great PMQs material for Keir Starmer.

The aforementioned Ipsos polling would not have come as a surprise to Starmer; the Labour leader knows Truss is unpopular and, better still, he recognises that no quarter of Labour’s electoral coalition ever voted for her. Truss’ presence in No 10 was willed into reality by a minority of Conservative MPs and the votes of 57.4 per cent of Tory members. 

It meant Keir Starmer had a relatively open goal today as he mocked Truss’ “MAGA” pandering. There was no risk of alienating any potential Labour voters — only gain to be had from Sunak’s strained responses.  

So, Keir Starmer opened the scoring: “[A] Tory MP spent last week saying that Britain is run by a shadowy cabal made up of activists, the deep state, and most chillingly of all the FT. At what point did his party give up on governing and become the political wing of the flat earth society?”

But the primer minister had his response ready. Indeed, you could the cogs whirring in Sunak’s head as he flicked to the section of his PMQs folder marked “Corbyn”. Ever fond of reminding Starmer of his association with Labour’s ancien régime, Sunak labelled the Labour leader “spineless, hopeless and utterly shameless”.

(The consequent roaring from the Conservative benches — who were welcoming this more spirited performance by Sunak — might have prompted the Speaker into action. But Sir Lindsay Hoyle remained seated and schtum. With the motion calling for his ouster now on 91 signatories, he will want to make no more enemies. No threats of an early “tea” or “bath” today.)

As backbench chunters crescendoed, Starmer continued to pillory Liz Truss. He asked Sunak why the former PM retains the Conservative whip given she “claims she was undermined by the deep state” and “stood there while Tommy Robinson, that right wing thug, was called a hero”.

The prime minister replied by saying he doesn’t believe a single MP supports Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon. And once more he came for Corbyn: “If he wants to talk about former leaders and predecessors, then the whole country knows his record”.

It was notable that Keir Starmer did not overtly attack Lee Anderson today — although criticism was of course implied. Anderson’s claim that Sadiq Khan is controlled by “Islamists” has driven conversations in Westminster rather more than Truss’ CPAC tirade(s). 

Then again, perhaps it was because Starmer could foresee Sunak’s return shot. Indeed, even without an outright Anderson name-drop as a prompt, the prime minister recited the relevant pre-prepared spiel. He declared that when he learned about the Conservative MP’s comments, he suspended him “straight away”. He went on to blast Labour’s former candidate in the Rochdale by-election, Azhar Ali, declaring that the Starmer “personally backed him for days”.

Earlier this month, Labour pulled its support for Ali after it emerged the councillor had suggested in a party meeting that Israel allowed the October 7 Hamas assault and used it as a pretext to invade Gaza. Ali’s apology and subsequent supportive comments from Labour’s top brass initially raised the prospect that the candidate might survive all the way up to polling day. But it was not to be. 

Referencing also the candidature of former Labour MP George Galloway in Rochdale, the race’s likely victor, Sunak continued: “The truth is, his party is so mired in hate that despite three ex-Labour candidates standing, [Starmer] can’t back a single one of them.”

(Lee Anderson, as it happened, was sitting next to Dame Andrea Jenkyns in today’s session. Jenkyns is one of two Conservative MPs to have publicly called on Sunak to stand down). 

In response, Keir Starmer moved on to Nigel Farage, whom Truss spoke of glowingly at CPAC. He asked the PM if the former UKIP leader would be welcomed back into “the Tory fold”. Sunak managed no outright denial, instead referencing the Conservative Party’s “proud tradition of diversity”. 

The prime minister has before repeatedly refused to rule out one day letting Farage into the Conservative Party big tent. His inability to rule out the prospect is plainly worthy of note — as Starmer went on to say: “This is the same Nigel Farage who said he agreed with the basic premise of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and bemoaned the influence of the Jewish lobby.”

“The truth is, these are no longer the Tories your parents voted for and the public can see it”, he added, concluding that the government is “dancing to Farage’s tune”.

It is a bold approach from Starmer. He will know that a significant number of former Labour voters will have voted for a Farage-helmed outfit in the past — be that UKIP of the Brexit Party. Still, he is clearly willing to risk alienating those voters in favour of tarring the Conservative Party, and thus Rishi Sunak, with Farage’s brush. 

Moreover, the exchange comes days after a Huffington Post report revealed that Labour has set up a “special ops unit” to prepare for the downfall of Sunak and the rise of Farage in his stead. 

In light of this, perhaps the Labour leader was merely preparing his attacks for a potential Sunak successor in today’s session — as, of course, was the case last week too.

PMQs verdict: Starmer 4, Sunak 2

PMQs verdict: Starmer guns for Sunak’s likely successor