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PMQs verdict: Keir Starmer chases the grey vote ahead of local elections

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He had the best seat in the House to witness the last big political set-piece ahead of the local elections in England and Wales tomorrow. Dr Dan Poulter MP, who defected from the Conservative Party to Labour over the weekend, was slotted in behind Keir Starmer for prime minister’s questions today — the Labour leader and PM’s final joust before polls open.

It was no accident, of course, that Poulter defected to Labour mere days ahead of the local elections, with Starmer still seeking to persuade wavering Conservative voters to back his “changed” party.

Indeed, taking to the despatch box at noon today, the Labour leader hailed Poulter’s journey as symbolic of the wider exodus of Conservative voters. He asked of Sunak: “When a lifelong Tory and doctor says that the only cure for the NHS is a Labour government, isn’t it time the prime minister admits he has utterly failed?”

The prime minister responded by referencing past critical comments Poulter has made about the Labour Party in his Central Suffolk constituency, before launching into his own mini stump speech: “This week, people everywhere should vote Conservative”, he declared.

‘Unfunded £46 billion promise’

Having welcomed Poulter to his new place on the opposition benches, Starmer quickly changed tack, asking the PM whether he has found the money for his “completely unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap National Insurance?”.

Hitting back, Sunak joked that he knows economics is not the Labour leader’s “strong point” and says “it’s crystal clear” that there is “one party that is going to deliver tax cuts for working Britain, and it’s the Conservative Party”.

Continuing this familiar theme — based on the chancellor’s hint at the autumn statement that he could soon scrap National Insurance altogether — Starmer went on to ask the PM if he could rule out making people delay their retirement to fill “his £46 billion black hole”.

This was Starmer making a direct appeal to the grey vote — that last remaining bastion of Tory support. Recent polling carried out by BMG Research on behalf of the i newspaper showed that pensioners still back the Conservatives over Labour by 38 per cent to 28 per cent, making them the final age bracket for Starmer to win over.

And so Starmer closed with a simple message today: “Vote Tory, risk your pension”.

The prime minister, largely, refused to engage with Starmer’s line of questioning — but dismissed the Labour position that scrapping National Insurance is a threat to the state pension as “scaremongering”.

‘Voters will have a choice’

Of course, the prime minister had his own electioneering to get along with. Taking to the despatch box after Starmer’s sixth and final question, he looked ahead to the local elections tomorrow.

“Voters will have a choice”, he asserted, “and it will be a choice between mayors like Andy Street and Ben Houchen, who are delivering, and mayors like Sadiq Khan, who just simply virtue signal”.

The prime minister will likely have been disappointed that Starmer opted not to focus his questioning today on the Rwanda scheme — once a favourite topic of the Labour leader. Indeed, there was no mention of the government’s flagship deportation plan at PMQs today until Conservative Party deputy chairman Jonathan Gullis took to his feet to celebrate the fact that the government “has now deported our first illegal migrant”.

Gullis was referring to the news, leaked to The Sun last night, that a failed asylum seeker has volunteered to go to Rwanda. According to the report, an unnamed man was flown out of the UK on Monday evening to Rwanda under a voluntary removal scheme, which — it must be stressed — is separate from the government’s plan for enforced deportation. The man received £3,000 of support for his troubles, and the UK will also pick up the tab for five years of bed and board.

But this is just one example of government pushing its line on illegal migration hard before the local elections. Gullis’ question came as the Home Office released a new video showing the first detentions of asylum seekers bound for Rwanda, viewable here.

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