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PMQs review: Starmer lets Sunak get away with immigration failures

In attacking the Prime Minister on pensions and National Insurance, the Labour leader missed the open goal.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The last time Keir Starmer faced Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions two weeks ago (with the deputies filling in last week), he had a plan. Capitalising on the attention Liz Truss was getting for her new book, the aim was to draw a clear connection between the Prime Minister and his disgraced predecessor. Truss, Starmer argued, had “crashed the economy” with “unfunded tax cuts” – now Sunak was hoping to do the same with his £46bn “plan” to abolish National Insurance.

It was a clever trick, and it worked well. Which possibly explains why Starmer tried the same tactic today – with markedly disappointing results.

His first question was a chance to show off Labour’s latest MP: the NHS doctor and former minister Dan Poulter, who defected to Labour last Friday after 14 years as a Conservative.

Starmer had his line handed to him by Poulter’s assertion that the “only cure for the NHS is a Labour government” – a jab Sunak could only counter by joking about Poulter’s attendance record. This sparked a roar of approval from the (surprisingly uncrowded) Tory benches, but wasn’t exactly an answer to the question of the worsening NHS crisis. Starmer could have seized on that, knowing as he must do that it is one of the biggest areas of voter concern ahead of the local elections tomorrow. He chose not to.

Instead, the Labour leader used the rest of his questions to try to re-litigate the point from two weeks ago: Sunak and his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, have both said their ambition is to abolish National Insurance – where is the money going to come from? And, given that National Insurance supposedly funds the state pension (although the money is not ring-fenced the way people generally assume it is), could Sunak guarantee he wouldn’t raid the cash from pensioners?

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You can sort of see what Starmer was trying to do here. On one front is the straightforward anti-Truss tactic: hammer home the perception that the Tories are not to be trusted on the economy and get his own back for the Conservatives’ relentless attack on Labour’s “£28bn” pledge on green investment, which the party was eventually forced to halve in February. Hence Starmer’s frequent use of phrases like “£46bn black hole” and “fantasy economics”. The second front is a more cynical attempt to undermine Tory support with the one group of voters that still backs them: pensioners.

“Vote Tory, risk your pension,” as Starmer warned today, is not exactly a sophisticated message. It’s also a disingenuous one: conversations are going on within Labour economic circles about ways to rebalance the tax system to make it less stacked against working young people in favour of those who have already accumulated wealth, as well they should be. Whether the scaremongering works is another matter – perhaps Starmer and his team really do believe that Labour has a chance to win over pensioners, and that it’s worth having a go even if it antagonises younger voters who were hoping for an honest conversation about generational inequality.

But today it just gave Sunak an easy ride. The Prime Minister batted away five attempts at the same question and got the chance to flag the “£900” (a year) tax cut that came into force last month.

The weakness of Starmer’s line of questioning was thrown into relief by what came after he sat down. Jonathan Gullis, now deputy chair of the Tory party in the absence of Reform-defector Lee Anderson, leaped to his feet to declare that “the Rwanda deterrent is working” and “we’ve now deported our first illegal migrant”. What he means is that the government has paid one person £3,000 to voluntarily leave the country – a fact Starmer could have hit the PM with to highlight the government’s desperation and incompetence. He could also have raised the issue of Home Office dysfunction after reports the department has lost contact with thousands of migrants earmarked for deportation, or that terrified asylum seekers have stopped turning up to appointments in fear they will be detained without warning.

It would have been a punchy line of attack, so why didn’t he? There was a clue in Sunak’s response to Gullis. The Prime Minister cited a scoop from the New Statesman’s political editor Andrew Marr that Labour is grappling with its own immigration dilemma over what to do if it scraps the Tories’ Rwanda plan, with a senior Labour adviser admitting “we can’t just come in, tear it up, and have nothing to put in its place”. This has not been a triumphant week for the Conservatives when it comes to immigration, yet Starmer backed off from that fight, wary perhaps of Labour’s own weakness on the topic.

It made for a lacklustre PMQs – particularly disappointing ahead of local elections which, Labour expects, will put the Tory party through yet another round of bloody infighting. A warning for Starmer that, whatever is going on with the Conservative civil war, he can’t just phone it in.

[See also: Cover story: what is Starmerism?]

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