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13 March 2024

PMQs review: Rishi Sunak’s unforced errors are destroying Tories’ faith

Keir Starmer pins the Prime Minister into hopeless contortions over Conservative scandals.

By Rachel Cunliffe

If the Tory party has been involved in a slow-motion car crash over the last few months, this week the action sped up. Over the past 48 hours, Rishi Sunak has faced not just the bombshell (if predictable) defection of Lee Anderson to Reform, but a furious row over racist comments allegedly made by the Conservative Party’s biggest donor, Frank Hester – a scandal that has been handled so terribly by Downing Street even loyal MPs are losing patience with their inept Prime Minister.

It is particularly unfortunate for Sunak (or ironic, if you believe in political irony) that this is the week his government is publishing its new extremism strategy. As has been reported in the Guardian, Hester said in 2019 that the (former Labour, now independent) MP Diane Abbott “should be shot” and that she made “[you] want to hate all black women”, while Anderson was suspended from the Conservative Party for accusing the London mayor Sadiq Khan of being under the “control” of “Islamists”.

The task for Keir Starmer at today’s PMQs was how to combine these two sore spots to exert maximum damage.

The questions were what you would expect. “Is the Prime Minister proud to be bankrolled by someone using racist and misogynist language?” Starmer began.

The Labour leader was never going to be able to use today’s performance to goad or shame Sunak into committing to returning Hester’s £10m donations. In an election year, the Prime Minister has every incentive to cling to the cash as long as possible, hoping the row will blow over. What Starmer’s questions did do, however, was force Sunak to again tie himself in knots defending the donor. After almost 24 hours of dithering over whether or not the comments could be called “racist” (which even hard-line Tory MPs readily agreed they were), Sunak has shifted to arguing the public should accept Hester’s “remorse”.

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That’s a difficult line to hold for a man who joked about the murder of an MP – especially in today’s acrimonious Westminster culture. As Starmer pointed out, two weeks ago Sunak held an impromptu press conference at 6pm on a Friday on the steps of No 10 (“no one asked him to do that”), decrying the “poison” of extremism and calling for cross-party consensus to “face down the extremists who would tear us apart”. Yet when Hester’s comments were first reported on Monday, the PM was “tongue-tied”.

It was the most obvious attack line imaginable. What was striking was the weakness of Sunak’s response – citing yet again Starmer’s past support of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. It’s a defence the PM has been reverting to with increasing frequency over the past year – and it just gave Starmer the chance to use one of his regular refrains: “He’s scared of his party, I’ve changed my party.”

Starmer also got in a jibe about Anderson, noting: “Now the MP for Ashfield is warming up the opposition benches for him.” He had a helping hand on the topic of Islamophobia, with the first question of the session asked by the Labour MP Afzal Khan: “Will the Prime Minister finally take Islamophobia seriously?” And when Starmer had finished his questions, the SNP leader in Westminster Stephen Flynn picked up on the Hester theme, asking “why is the Prime Minister putting money before morals?”

Interestingly, though, the Labour leader wanted to move on from the two big rows of the week to last Wednesday’s lacklustre Budget. He pressed Sunak on Jeremy Hunt’s suggestion about one day abolishing National Insurance, calling it a “£46bn unfunded commitment” and accusing the government of “shaking the Tory magic money tree”.

This is notable for two reasons. First, it is yet another sign that Labour feels comfortable parking its tanks on the traditional Tory lawn of the economy. “All we need now is an especially hardy lettuce and it could be 2022 all over again,” Starmer joked, evoking the chaos of the Liz Truss era. For all that Sunak’s government wants to draw a line under the Truss episode and sell the narrative that the economy is improving under his watch, the short-lived former PM remains a big liability.

Secondly, focusing on the Budget drew attention to the disquiet among Tory ranks. There was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the speculation about National Insurance – Conservative MPs are either frustrated that the cuts Hunt did announce (costing the Treasury around £10bn) have been completely overshadowed, or have checked out entirely. For most of today’s session, the MPs surrounding Sunak looked either annoyed or bored. Their chosen spreadsheet-obsessed leader is failing to use his self-proclaimed proficiency on the economy to make any kind of inroad in the polls, and is instead prone to unforced error after unforced error. They are exasperated by his disastrous communications strategy and lack of foresight, as evidenced by the Hester row.

And if Sunak was hoping to regain their confidence with a dazzling under-pressure performance at PMQs today, they will be sorely disappointed.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is not very good at politics]

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