PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer throws down the election gauntlet

Credit to the government whips today who found in Conservative MP Giles Watling a willing vessel into which to plant a friendly question about inflation. If the endless anti-government briefing is anything to go by, of course, such outspokenly loyal MPs are a rare fixture in Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party. 

The commons went through the motions, then, as the prime minister duly agreed with Watling that cutting inflation is indeed the best way to help his constituents. Eyes locked on his PMQs binder, Sunak hailed today’s news that inflation fell from 4 per cent to 3.4 per cent in February as evidence his “plan is working”.

What followed next — as Labour leader Keir Starmer gripped the despatch at prime ministers question’s today — was no less than the clearest illustration yet of the Sunak’s enduring travails. Indeed, with the PM and Watling having opened the session by talking up Britain’s cooling economy, Starmer quickly changed the subject by listing a series of perceived government failings:

Violent prisoners released early because the Tories wrecked the criminal justice system. Three and a half thousand small boat arrivals already this year because the Tories lost control of the borders. The NHS struggling to see people because the Tories broke it. Millions paying more for their mortgages, a budget that hit pensioners, a £46 billion hole in his sums.

“Why is the prime minister so scared to call an election?”,.

The question was so framed to make the case for an election appear inarguable and the prime minister, ergo, as fearing the wrath of the electorate. Still, Sunak protested as he told the House of his “working assumption … that the election will be in the second half of this year”. 

He even managed a quip, claiming that a poll later in the year actually gifts Starmer time to “come up with a plan for Britain”.

The Labour leader hit back simply: “We’re ready — just call it.”

It’s not the first time that Keir Starmer has thrown down the election gauntlet — but that he led on this question at PMQs today is at least worthy of note. We are likely many months away from a national poll, with informed observers pointing to 17 October as a likely date. 

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It rarely benefits an opposition party to beg for an election. Such siren calls are essentially guaranteed to be ignored and the climbdown that follows, in returning to the dogged business of opposition, can be difficult to land. But contrary to this logic, Labour contends that Sunak’s refusal to trigger an election exposes his desperation to cling to power — in lieu of any enthusiasm for acting on Britain’s mounting interrelated crises.

And when it comes to the issues that Sunak has stated his intention to act, the Labour leader takes it upon himself to expose ministers as incompetent. Naturally, this continued to be the case today as Starmer honed in on the government’s flagship Rwanda deportation scheme.

Ahead of a series of votes in the House of Lords tonight — as peers continue in their bid to amend the Rwanda Bill — Starmer claimed that the “gimmick” scheme this legislation seeks to enable will mean less than 1 per cent of the 130,000 people waiting for an initial decision on their asylum application will actually be deported. 

On the back foot, the PM parried by pointing to his record, declaring he has brought the number of “small boats” crossings down by a third. “We’re committed to stopping the boats and the Labour Party will keep them coming”, he contended.

In a later exchange, Sunak predictably sought to weaponise Starmer’s lawyerly past. “If it was up to him”, the PM argued, “those criminals would still be out on our streets. And the truth is that if he wasn’t the Labour leader, he’d still want to be their lawyer”.

Of course, the Rwanda plan has for some time been Starmer’s favourite subject at prime minister’s questions — such rebukes notwithstanding. Throughout the Rwanda Bill’s House of Commons stages, the Labour leader frequently majored on the scheme in his weekly exchanges with Sunak, lambasting it as long-delayed, immoral and costly. 

The Labour leader’s attacks today, however, focused on the argument that the Rwanda plan won’t even succeed on its own terms: i.e. by “stopping small boats”. 

Starmer’s office appears to have calculated that the government’s new law, once passed by parliament, might actually result in the plan’s implementation — if only at a limited scale. By slightly updating his attack lines, therefore, the Labour leader can stay ahead of the government — even if it succeeds in operationalising the much-promised scheme. 

The Rwanda Bill may well pass, Starmer concedes; but the plan as a whole is destined to fail. 

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Ostensibly, the PM has reasons to be cheerful when it comes to his Rwanda plan. On Monday, the government won all ten divisions on amendments to the Rwanda Bill — successfully seeing off one nationer Sir Robert Buckland’s one-man rebellion. 

But the prime minister’s authority has not been bolstered by these victories. The Conservative Party remains restive, with MPs now rolling through potential Sunak successor candidates by the day (security minister Tom Tugendhat is the latest to be touted).

Starmer naturally reserved some time today to wade into the rumbling Conservative psychodrama — joking at one point that leader of the House Penny Mordaunt is “holding the sword of Damocles” over the PM’s head. It was a reference both to Mordaunt’s sword-wielding antics at the Coronation, and her status as the rebels’ favoured “unity candidate”.

“He’s now so diminished that his entire focus is stopping his MPs holding the sword of Damocles above his head – literally in the case of the Leader of the House”, Starmer blasted. 

The Labour leader likes to talk about Sunak as being “diminished” or, as with another line today, “reduced”. It styles Sunak as a frail figure, unworthy of the status of his office — while doubling as a cynical jibe at the PM’s literally small stature. (The Labour leader has previously suggested that Sunak is not “big enough” for the job of prime minister). 

Reacting to Starmer’s Mordaunt quip, the chief whip Simon Hart tried to engage the House leader in conversation — presumably to prove that she was, after all, unbothered by it. Mordaunt, however, chose to respond with a clearly discernible eye-roll.

Closing today, the Labour leader decided to address the Conservative backbenches directly — something, he suggested, Sunak was unable and/or unwilling to do himself. 

“If they can’t bring themselves to stop the endless games and gimmicks, and stop putting themselves before country, they should pack up, go home, and waste somebody else’s time”, Starmer argued. 

By looking beyond and behind his despatch box adversary, the Labour leader intended to style Sunak as an increasingly irrelevant and isolated figure. With the prime minister deprived of his authority, this was Starmer stepping up to engage the Conservative Party in the difficult conversations Sunak wilfully avoids. 

The PM responded by blasting Labour for failing to fill its “£28 billion black hole” — a banal reference to the party’s green energy policy u-turn.

In this way, the session might reasonably be characterised as a low-energy pre-recess tussle — and it undoubtedly was. But, once more, it shows how easily the prime minister’s messaging on the economy can be derailed. 

Let’s see if Sunak’s backbenchers are any more willing to listen when he faces the 1922 committee at 5pm today. Oh, how the PM wishes he possessed a party full of Watlings. 

PMQs Verdict: Keir Starmer 4, Rishi Sunak 2

Josh Self is Editor of, follow him on Twitter here. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.

Politics@Lunch: Starmer tells Sunak to ‘pack up and go home’