There were no prizes for guessing the theme of today’s PMQs. After last night’s dangerously large Tory rebellion over amendments to the Rwanda bill, Keir Starmer had a brilliant opportunity to highlight the Conservatives’ fractures and Rishi Sunak’s rapidly depleting authority. And that is exactly what the Labour leader did.
Starmer was clearly enjoying himself, starting by noting that the government had “lost contact with 85 per cent of the 5,000 people” due for deportation to Rwanda. “Has he found them yet?” he mockingly asked Sunak.
Unsurprisingly, the answer was not yes. And the rest of Starmer’s questions followed the same pattern. Today was all about highlighting the government’s dysfunction and the stunning incompetencies surrounding the Rwanda scheme: the £400m already paid before a single deportation has taken place, the lack of planes to enable the scheme to work, the fact the UK has actually accepted asylum seekers from Rwanda and, of course, the 4,250 missing people.
As he replied, Sunak clung to the Tories’ new slogan for this year’s election: “stick with the plan” and avoid going “back to square one”. It didn’t help him much. There were roars of laughter in the chamber as Starmer jibed, “He hasn’t got a clue where they are, has he? I can tell you one place where they aren’t, and that’s Rwanda” – and not just from the Labour benches. When Sunak insisted that he has “absolute conviction” in his Rwanda plans, there were painfully obvious titters from the benches behind him.
The problem for the Prime Minister isn’t just the shambolic handling of the Rwanda scheme: it’s that his party knows he doesn’t really believe in it. Around half of them think he should have abandoned the bill and the other half are furious he hasn’t made it harder for migrants to their satisfaction. Starmer didn’t need to do much except draw attention to this divide, rubbing salt into the wounds opened by the Rwanda bill by cheerfully reminding Tory backbenchers that Sunak originally didn’t support it.
“He’s been brutally exposed by his own MPs,” he reminded the House, well aware that more than 60 of those MPs defied the government last night, and a sizeable handful are expected to do so again today. “His former home secretary says the plan won’t work, his current home secretary calls it batshit.”
Sunak was on the defensive, casting around for anything to hit back with. He tried to turn the debate to Labour’s supposed softness on illegal immigration, referencing a book Starmer wrote in 1999 on European human rights law and earning himself a reprimand from the Speaker for using props. If that was intended to rattle the Labour leader, it failed. So did a somewhat desperate attempt to accuse Starmer of offering legal support to the pan-Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which the government has just banned as a terror group.
It should worry Sunak that Starmer is so confident in challenging the Tories over immigration. He has led on the topic at three of the last four PMQs, aware that what used to be a danger zone for Labour has become a liability for the Conservatives. In part, this is because the Tories are so divided on the issue (as last night’s rebellion and the resignation of Lee Anderson proved). But it’s also about public sentiment: Labour overtook the Tories as the party most trusted on asylum and immigration over a year ago, and Sunak’s fixation on the issue has only made matters worse. When Starmer says the country doesn’t trust Sunak, he has the numbers to back it up. And it increasingly looks like the Tory party feels the same way.