©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

PMQs verdict: Rishi Sunak finally distances himself from Liz Truss

It was little surprise that Keir Starmer focussed his questioning on the return of Liz Truss at PMQs this afternoon. The former prime minister’s publicity tour for her new treatise, Ten Years to Save the West, has aligned perfectly with parliament’s return post-recess — and Labour has taken advantage. 

Yesterday, Labour’s chief attack dog Jonathan Ashworth toured the press gallery with his own version of Truss’ book. “14 Years to ruin a nation”, the title read in block capitals. And inside contained this confected quote from the prime minister: “Liz, this deserves to be read by everyone! You really do pose the hard questions the country needs to think about. One day (soon) I hope I’ll have time to write my own”.

The stunt offers a worthy microcosm of Labour’s case against Truss and co: she crashed the economy, the Conservative Party — including Rishi Sunak — was complicit, and the prime minister remains too weak to call her out. 

As for why Labour is so intent on delivering this message, recent polling from Ipsos has revealed that Truss has a net favourability rating of -60 — meaning she is viewed more unfavourably than all of her fellow Conservative prime ministers, both former and current. Labour knows the Conservative brand has been severely damaged by Truss’s short premiership — and so Starmer refuses to let up. 

“It’s quite the read!”, Starmer said of Truss’s book as he began his line of questioning at PMQs today. He added:

She claims that the Tory Party’s disastrous kamikaze budget that triggered chaos for millions was, her words, the happiest moment of her premiership. Has the PM met anyone with a mortgage who agrees?

Rishi Sunak, as is typical when Labour raises the spectre of his predecessor, refused to engage. Instead, he came prepared with a genuine Conservative crowd-pleaser. The PM responded that his counterpart should spend less time reading “that book’” and more time looking into his deputy’s tax advice — a reference to the Greater Manchester Police investigation into Angela Rayner. 

The retort unleashed a wave of jeering from the Conservative benches, unlike anything we have seen at PMQs for some time. Weeks of relative Conservative quiet at PMQs were washed away with a single well-coordinated comeback.

Following a much-needed intervention from the speaker, the Labour leader was noticeably thrown off his rhythm. He has gotten used to little resistance at PMQs in recent sessions — today was meant to be no different as he lampooned Sunak for failing to control his predecessor. That said, Starmer had a response prepared: “We’ve got a billionaire PM whose family has used schemes to avoid millions of pounds (of tax) smearing a working class woman”. 

The Labour leader’s comeback will win plaudits on his own side — and it is a signal of the force with which he is willing to defend its deputy. But it failed to quiet the Conservative jeering. 

Still, Starmer continued to press his case, going on to list the people Truss has blamed for her “mini-budget’s” failure — including the governor of the Bank of England, the Office for Budget Responsibility and, even, the poor Daily Star lettuce. Once more, Labour was looking to trap the prime minister, who has for some time prioritised party management over principle when it comes to his commentary on his predecessor’s premiership.

What followed, then, was genuinely interesting. Contrary to his usual instincts, Sunak actually engaged with the substance of Starmer’s question. Refusing to be rubbished as complicit in Truss’s political and economic failings, Sunak responded: 

Everyone knows that two years ago I wasn’t afraid to warn about what her economic policies would lead to even if it wasn’t what people wanted to hear at the time. I was right then. But I’m also right now when I say that [Starmer]’s economic policies would be a disaster for Britain.

The Labour leader appeared wrong-footed by Sunak’s willingness to criticise Truss. The prime minister followed up referencing Starmer’s own predecessor as leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It is a favourite refrain of Sunak’s at PMQs — but its potency has ever been stymied by his refusal to criticise his own troublesome forebear. 

Today, though, with some actual distance established between himself and Truss, Sunak blasted: “Not once but twice, he tried to make his predecessor prime minister, despite him opposing Nato and Trident, ignoring antisemitism and siding with our enemies. It’s clear what he did. He put his own interests ahead of Britain’s!”

Starmer went on to criticise Sunak for not ruling out “cutting the NHS or state pensions to pay for scrapping National Insurance. … I was a lawyer long enough to know when someone is avoiding the question”. But, again, Sunak refused to cede any ground, insisting he made “absolutely no apology about wanting to end the unfairness of the double tax on work”.

Viewed in full, this was a strong performance from the prime minister, when — after days of political difficulty on Truss and his smoking ban — he really had little right to give one. Even anti-Sunak agitator and Conservative MP, Andrea Jenkyns, asked a supportive question, giving the prime minister further opportunity to rehearse his talking points on the Rayner investigation. 

PMQs Verdict: Rishi Sunak 4, Keir Starmer 2

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

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