Conservative donor race row dominates PMQs

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Keir Starmer was spoilt for choice at PMQs this afternoon. Fresh from losing Lee Anderson to Reform UK on Monday, the Conservative Party has once more been shaken by the reported comments of lead donor Frank Hester.

Hester, who donated £10 million to the Conservatives last year, is reported by The Guardian to have said that suspended Labour MP Diane Abbott made him “want to hate all black women” and that the politician “should be shot”. More detail on this row here.

After a day of refusing to call the comments racist, Rishi Sunak finally did so last night via a spokesperson. He did not, however, address calls for the donations to be returned.

This continued to be the line at prime minister’s questions today as Starmer sought to shame the Conservative Party into handing back Hester’s £10 million. “Is the prime minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynist language?”, the Labour leader opened, pillorying Sunak for prioritising an election war chest over anti-racist principle.

The PM replied by saying that Hester’s alleged comments “were wrong, they were racist” and noted his apology. (However, 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).

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

Starmer 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.

This latter exchange 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.

Lunchtime briefing:

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Lunchtime soundbite

In separating the definition of extremism from actual violence and harm, we may criminalise people with a wide range of legitimate views, and have a chilling on free speech

— At prime minister’s questions today, Conservative MP Miriam Cates asks for reassurance that the government will “target the specific groups that foster terrorism and those who fund them”. Rishi Sunak respond by saying that Cates “makes a good point”, adding that the upcoming extremism strategy “will, I think, be one she can support”.

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