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7 June 2023

PMQs today: Oliver Dowden outclassed by Angela Rayner

The Deputy Prime Minister struggled to justify the government’s obstruction of the Covid inquiry.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Today’s clash of the deputies underlined the class of Labour’s Angela Rayner. With Rishi Sunak in Washington – “at the invitation” of Joe Biden as the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden rather cloyingly reminded MPs – this week’s PMQs was left to the stand-ins.

Keir Starmer’s deputy began with a short-but-sweet question on the 2019 Tory manifesto promise to stop the abuse of judicial reviews, which the government has used in an attempt to block the Covid inquiry from obtaining messages, including WhatsApps, sent by ministers during the pandemic. “How’s it going?” she asked.

Rayner then wondered if Dowden expected praise for spending taxpayers’ money on “loophole lawyers”. She also mocked his avowed understanding of working-class people, saying she “knows he likes to think of himself as a man of the people” but that the government is “spending hundreds of thousands of pounds” trying to “obstruct” the Covid hearing.

This is an uncomfortable area for Sunak’s administration because its actions raise suspicions about what ministers might want to hide, and about whether it trusts Heather Hallett – the government-appointed chair of the inquiry – to conduct the investigation. Dowden insisted the government should hold back civil servants’ medical data and that the inquiry may not have a right to view “wholly and unambiguously irrelevant” information.

On the question of public money, Dowden riposted that Rayner had put two pairs of noise-cancelling headphones on expenses. As though relying on the gadgets to weed out Dowden’s “dire” punchlines, Rayner reminded the Deputy PM that Labour was simply asking what the inquiry wanted, and that similar hearings were under way in other countries. Dowden, seemingly touchy about the subject, countered that he didn’t need WhatsApps to understand that there was “no communication” between Rayner and the Labour leader Keir Starmer.

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The Labour deputy also questioned the government’s record on schools: why had it abandoned plans for a register of children missing classes? Dowden said this policy was under review, and tried to defend the government’s education record by reminding onlookers how high reading standards were, before making the bizarre claim that Labour followed the advice of trade unions while ministers listened to experts. Rayner ignored the jibe and instead charged Dowden with the conclusions of a Public Accounts Committee report, published earlier this week. It found that £21bn of public money had been lost to fraud in the two years after Covid emerged in Britain.

With not a small amount of chutzpah – given what happened after Liz Truss’s mini-Budget last autumn – Dowden claimed that the opposition’s £28bn climate investment pledge would push up interest rates further, and that Britain “can’t afford” a Labour government.

At the close of this rather predictable PMQs, Rayner said the country “cannot afford more of this government”. Labour’s deputy leader may have been flush with confidence after a poll, commissioned by Best for Britain, today suggested Labour is on course for a 140-seat majority. Meanwhile, Rayner consistently proves herself capable of demolishing the rolling cast of Tory deputy PMs. Today was no exception.

[See also: Rachel Reeves: Labour’s plan for power]

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