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24 April 2024

PMQs review: Angela Rayner struggles to change the narrative

Her attempt to focus on the Conservatives’ U-turn on banning no-fault evictions was no match for the gift of political scandal.

By Freddie Hayward

Angela Rayner usually relishes standing in for Keir Starmer at PMQs when the Prime Minister is abroad. Her style is comic, Boris Johnson-esque. She loves flinging barbs across the despatch box at those Tory posh boys.

Today was different. Rayner herself became the target of the parliamentary ribbing that those who want to succeed in British politics must perfect. She knew from the first question that the months of speculation around her tax affairs, and the ongoing police investigation, was a gift to the deputy PM, Oliver Dowden, who is more used to prepping leaders for PMQs than doing it himself. With that in mind, she began her first question with a defensive block. “I know the party opposite is desperate to talk about my living arrangements,” she said before segueing to ask about the government’s U-turn on renters’ reform. “Instead of obsessing over my house, when will they get a grip and show the same obsession with ending no-fault eviction?”

But that was never going to happen. The Tories have so little on Labour they would not let a story like the one engulfing Rayner to pass by so easily. “It is a pleasure to have another exchange with the Right Honourable Lady in this house, our fifth in 12 months,” Dowden began, “any more of these and she’ll be claiming it as her principal residence!” Cue laughter. The Tory benches got what they came for.

Rayner was not her ebullient self. She remains bunkered down, albeit bullish that the police will clear her name. Nonetheless, she had still taken time to write her jokes and she would deliver them despite the headlines. The issue at hand was the government’s decision to water down plans to ban no-fault evictions, a touchy issue for the landlords staring her down from the government benches. Dowden insisted that parliament would have a chance to vote on the issue later today, after which he switched gracelessly to the economy, and from there to Labour’s plans to repeal anti-trade union laws, which would lead to, Dowden went on, “French-style wildcat strikes”. He had her now! Everyone hates the French!

But no dice. Rayner parried with a selection of Tory party greatest hits: Liz Truss’s world tour, the mini-Budget, mortgage rates. “Their ban on leasehold won’t apply to the majority of people,” she said, “it’s like banning non-doms but exempting Tory prime ministers!” Ta-da! But her parting question was the most acute and the most wounding for Tory MPs: “Has [Dowden] finally realised that when he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back to get his mate into No 10 he was ditching their biggest election-winner for a pint-sized loser?” A low blow, as it were. Pause here to note the praise for Johnson.

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Was there any substance beneath the banter? Very little. But it was interesting that Rayner attacked the West Midlands Conservative mayor Andy Street. The mayoral elections will be held next week. Tory MPs are expecting a massacre of Conservative councillors, not least because the party did relatively well the last time these seats were contested in 2021, which means there are more seats to lose. The party’s hope lies in metro mayors who are popular as individuals, namely Street and Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley. Both have been desperate to shed their Tory Party skin in recent weeks. Street has dropped the Tory’s traditional blue and plastered his campaign material with a suffragette green and purple. He has pointedly said such moves were “utterly deliberate”.

But that didn’t stop Dowden from praising him and attacking the Labour-run Birmingham council for going bankrupt. The lesson here is that metro mayors are acquiring a gravitas that council elections can struggle to muster. In any case, what happens next Thursday in the mayoralties will be much more important than today’s edition of DPMQS.

[See also: Britain’s worklessness crisis is getting worse]

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