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PMQs review: Keir Starmer turns the “flip-flop” charge back on Rishi Sunak

The Labour leader relished mocking the Prime Minister’s erratic changes of strategy.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The campaign for the next election, whenever it may be, kicked off in earnest today.

At the first PMQs of 2024, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer each came armed with political attack lines that we are sure to hear repeated ad nauseam as polling day draws closer.

First, and by far most importantly, we got a crucial update on the Post Office scandal, with Sunak announcing that he will “introduce new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted are swiftly exonerated and compensated”. The urgency with which the government has finally been prompted to act will be bittersweet for the thousands of sub-postmasters who had their lives ruined and have spent years seeking adequate compensation. But with the House united in its fury, progress is at last being made.

The cross-party support for the victims does not, however, place this issue above the usual partisan politics. Sunak’s announcement followed a question from the deputy Conservative chairman Lee Anderson, who gleefully highlighted the role in the Horizon saga of the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, who was post office minister from 2010-12. Anderson called for Davey’s resignation, suggesting he should think about “clearing his desk, clearing his diary, and clear off”. Sunak did not respond to Anderson’s suggestion but, given the threat posed by the Lib Dems in the “Blue Wall”, he will have been grateful for the attack line.

Keir Starmer welcomed Sunak’s announcement but focused on the other big political story of the moment: the Rwanda bill, which is due to return to the Commons next week. His question centred on the BBC’s recent report that when the scheme was first discussed in Boris Johnson’s cabinet in 2022, the then chancellor – a certain Rishi Sunak – opposed it on the basis it wasn’t good value for money. The Prime Minister has been furiously attempting to distance himself from this suggestion in recent days, aware that right-wing Tory rebels already doubt his commitment to the Rwanda scheme. He did the same today in response to Starmer, but, as the Labour leader cheerfully pointed out, did not deny the story.

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It’s a useful angle of attack for Starmer, as it enables him to highlight the extortionate cost of the Rwanda plan (£290m to date, without a single deportation), while capitalising on the Tories’ internal divisions over the bill. It’s also a way to paint the Prime Minister as weak: Starmer accused Sunak of “being caught red-handed opposing the very thing he’s now made his flagship policy”.

The flip-flopping line is usually used by the Tories about Starmer (CCHQ actually sells Keir Starmer flip-flops on its merchandise website), but today we saw the Labour leader turning that attack around. In addition to Rwanda, he also drew attention to Sunak’s latest attempt at a reset: his speech on Monday in which he urged voters to “stick with” him or “go back to square one”.

“Mr Steady, Mr Change, now he’s switched back to Mr More of the Same. It doesn’t matter how many relaunches and flip-flops he does. He’ll always be Mr Nobody,” Starmer gloated. It’s debatable whether the average voter has actually noticed Sunak’s various changes in messaging, but the “more of the same” narrative will no doubt be used by Labour this year to warn the public off voting Tory.

Other familiar Labour attacks were tested. “He just doesn’t get it,” Starmer said with mock sorrow, repeating a phrase he first used in May 2022 against Johnson. “He doesn’t get what a cost-of-living crisis feels like.” He brought up the waiting lists in NHS dentistry, the UK’s inadequate flood defences and the issue of school absences, asking the PM “Does he realise how ludicrous it looks when he spends his time boasting while Britain is breaking?” The broken Britain narrative, along with the charge that Sunak is out of touch and oblivious to the reality facing ordinary people – “the view on the ground is very different to that from his private jet,” Starmer quipped – will be central to Labour’s election campaign.

For his part, Sunak was also keen to cement his political narrative. Not for the first time, he accused Starmer of “pick[ing] people smugglers over the British people”, of being in thrall to the trade unions and of backing endless lockdowns. 

“It’s still all slogan, no plan,” Sunak argued – something that, ironically, would make a good slogan on a campaign leaflet. And even after his U-turn had been mocked, Sunak leant into his new strategy, repeating his call from Monday’s speech for voters to “stick with us to deliver the long-term change the country needs, don’t go back to square one with him”.

No one “won” this week’s PMQs – but then, winning wasn’t the point. This was a rehearsal, a chance for the leaders to test their communications strategies. With an election in the first half of the year all but ruled out, expect another nine months, at least, of this. It’s going to be a very long year.

[See also: Labour’s biggest threat is an electorate that has already given up]

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