©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: The Conservative Party refuses to rally behind Rishi Sunak

It’s a common refrain in any post-PMQs digest — but Keir Starmer was genuinely spoiled for choice today as he prepared to face off against Rishi Sunak today. The PM, emerging from his Downing Street bunker this afternoon, was forced to respond to a deluge of difficult news stories.

As Starmer gripped the commons despatch box, preparing to pillory the Conservative Party on all manner of topics, how the PM must have missed the relative calm of his No 10 den. 

That said, Starmer began on a lighter note, choosing to hail the career of former prime minister Theresa May, who announced last week that she will be standing down as an MP at the next election. The Labour leader wished May well on “her well-deserved retirement”, adding that she “served this House and her constituents with a real sense of duty”. 

It may have been an entirely earnest aside — but in a week when so many are referencing May’s ailing premiership in a bid to explain Sunak’s, I am compelled to tease out the potential potency. 

Undoubtedly, there is more than a hint of the flavour of Theresa May’s government to the Sunak administration right now. Recent reports of Sunak meeting the chairman of the 1922 backbench committee, Sir Graham Brady, amid a flurry of no confidence letters; the constant struggle to retain party unity as No 10 negotiates between moderate and hardline tendencies; the straining of collective responsibility — be that over the budget or recent racism rows; and the near-constant political crises sapping the PM’s authority, serve at every turn to strengthen the Sunak-May parallels.

The prime minister even uttered the words “nothing has changed” last week: a sign of the times if there ever was one. (No wonder Sunak refused to echo Starmer’s pro-May sentiment at PMQs today).

In this way, each PMQs session is framed in terms of how it might alter the destiny of a tired government stuck in a May-like tailspin. And, once more, Sunak failed this afternoon to meaningfully rally his MPs behind him. The political malaise is more and more apparent — going by the muted response from Conservative MPs, at least. 

Minister bemoans ‘zero tolerance is just a slogan’ amid Conservative donor race row

As expected, Starmer kicked off his questioning by calling out the newly surfaced comments allegedly made by Conservative donor Frank Hester. “Is the prime minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynist language when he says [Diane Abbott] ‘makes you want to hate black women’?”, the Labour leader asked, pillorying Sunak for prioritising an election war chest over anti-racist principle.

The PM trotted out the same line that his spokesperson outlined on Tuesday evening. He insisted that Hester’s alleged comments “were wrong” and “racist”. 

Sunak added that his donor “rightly apologised” for the remarks and that Hester’s “remorse… should be accepted”. (Of course, as SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn pointed out in his line of questioning, Hester’s statement on Monday did not accept that what he said was racist). 

“There is no place for racism in Britain, and the government that I lead is living proof of that”, Sunak continued. That line was met by but minimal Conservative cheering, and jeers of “No it’s not” from the Labour benches.

One option for Sunak, heading into this PMQs today, was for the PM to declare that he, after all, would be donating Hester’s £10 million to charity. It would have taken the wind out of Starmer’s sails and altered the narrative, irrevocably perhaps, to the Conservatives’ favour. Many Conservative MPs, one senses, would have preferred this approach — but it was not forthcoming.

As Starmer pressed further on Hester’s comments, there followed Sunak’s usual attempts to turn the fire back on Labour. The PM suggested Starmer was guilty of “double standards”, given his relative quiet over “his deputy leader [Angela Rayner] calling her opponents ‘scum’” and “the shadow foreign secretary [David Lammy] comparing Conservatives to Nazis”.

Starmer’s “silence speaks volumes”, Sunak slated. 

The Labour leader, of course, has a carefully honed comeback for such attack lines: “He’s scared of his party, I’ve changed my party”, he hit back. Starmer went on to mock the PM for posing “as some kind of unifier” in his recent speech on extremism. 

He soon changed tack, however, by attacking the government over the recent Spring Budget. The Labour leader pointed out that National Insurance contributions fund state pensions and the NHS, and asked whether the PM’s latest “unfunded 46 billion promise going to be paid for by cuts to state pensions, or cuts to the NHS”. It was a reference to chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s stated ambition to one day be rid of NI entirely. 

The PM refused to engage with the question, instead rounding on Labour’s “unfunded” spending plans. In return, Starmer insisted that it is he who will not be sticking to the Conservatives’ “unfunded” promises. 

Some have suggested that Starmer’s decision to save his last three questions for budget commentary, let Sunak wriggle out of the more uncomfortable line of attack on Hester’s comments. 

But this latter exchange once more underlines that the Spring Budget has done little to rescue the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. Rather, the government’s position on NI has granted Labour an opening to further blast “unfunded” promises emanating from ministerial ranks. Tellingly, Starmer referenced the lettuce that “outlasted” Liz Truss as PM in his questioning today.

The Spring Budget may have merely served to sharpen Starmer’s attack lines. 

PMQs, therefore, serves as a weekly reminder of the malaise that currently characterises Conservative politics. Nothing Sunak says can puncture the swelling anticipation of defeat. 

In this way, we are once again reminded of Theresa May’s tenure as prime minister. May, through the dog days of 2018-2019, fought gamely against her inevitable demise. But she still could not wield power in any meaningful way. Conservative MPs at every turn reserved the right to ultimately replace her. 

The clear difference today is that Sunak’s tumult is no longer impelling Conservative MPs against him. With an election mere months away, there is no obvious campaign against the PM and no clear candidate to seize the reins of No 10. 

We face the genuine prospect of rolling political crises, both mini and large, until the government finally calls time on itself with an election — likely many months away. 

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

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Week-in-Review: The Conservative Party has come to terms with its malaise