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PMQs review: Sunak and Starmer need to grow up

Government scrutiny is being lost in the attempt to score rhetorical points.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Sometimes the House of Commons really does feel like a classroom full of overgrown schoolchildren. So it was in the lead-up to Prime Minister’s Questions today. After Natalie Elphicke’s shock defection last week, there has been fevered speculation (some, if we’re honest, far from serious) about whether a third Tory MP in a month might follow her and Dan Poulter in crossing the floor.

As MPs filed into the chamber ahead of PMQs, there were exaggerated “oooohs” from the Labour benches each time a Conservative entered to take their seats, as though any one of them might suddenly turn and sit behind Keir Starmer instead. No one did, but coming at the tail-end of questions to the Equalities Minister, including one about women harmed by the vaginal mesh scandal, it lent a discordantly unserious tone to proceedings.

This dissonance continued as Starmer and Rishi Sunak went head-to-head. Starmer’s questions all related to the crisis in the justice system, in particular the government’s plan to start releasing some prisoners up to 70 days early because there are no prison places.

It’s a vital subject, both in policy terms and as a strategy for Labour, which has been trying to park its tanks on the Tory law-and-order lawn by highlighting the government’s failures when it comes to criminal justice. Crime has been rising up the voter priority list, with the courts backlog, poor policing performance and overcrowded prisons all areas of major concern. Both parties are trying to make the case that they are best able to keep the public safe.

It was a shame, therefore, that Starmer couldn’t quite resist the urge for a joke. He began by riffing on the absurdity of the minister for common sense (yes that’s an unofficial position held by Esther McVey) announcing a crackdown on the “gravest of the threats”: colourful lanyards. McVey thinks civil servants should be banned from displaying political affiliations, which (for her, but not necessarily the rest of the cabinet) includes the LGBT+ rainbow on lanyards. That gave Sunak the opportunity to counter with a jibe about asking his chief of staff about civil service impartiality – a reference to the infamous Sue Gray, the top civil servant who now works as one of Starmer’s closest aides.

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It was a good comeback and Starmer should have seen it coming. The Labour leader also mangled a line mocking “tech-bro” Sunak for Conservative Campaign Headquarters’ email snafu on Monday (the party broke data laws by sharing hundreds of recipients’ email addresses – a story broken by yours truly – for which the party apologised and claimed it self-reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office). But he did get in a sharp insult towards the end of the session, returning to his original theme and accusing the PM of confiscated rainbow lanyards “like some jumped-up milk monitor” instead of stopping domestic abusers from being released early.

Therein lies the problem. While the government has got itself into a ridiculous mess over McVey’s lanyard crusade, which even hard-line Tories acknowledge is hardly an issue of top voter concern, Starmer muddied his main point by focusing on it. And his main point is a serious one: after years of low investment in the prison estate and longer sentences from a “tough on crime” Conservative government, the prisons are so full of criminals they are being released early.

Starmer pressed Sunak on some crucial questions. “How many? Where are they? What crimes have they committed?… Are any of the prisoners he is currently letting out early considered to be high risk?”

The Prime Minister insisted “no one will be put on the scheme if they were deemed a threat to public safety”, only for Starmer to quote a report on Lewes prison, which referred to “high risk-prisoners being released at short notice without sufficient planning”. One prisoner released early, the report said, had a “history of stalking, domestic abuse, and a restraining order” and was deemed a risk to children.

This is huge – and Sunak didn’t have an answer, beyond criticising the record of the last Labour government and reiterating his insistence that those who are a threat to the public will not be eligible for the scheme. That claim may well come back to bite the Prime Minister if it turns out the safeguards he cited are not as robust as he thought.

In the meantime, victims groups are up in arms at the prospect of offenders being released early, with the domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs warning: “Domestic abuse victims should not pay the price of prison overcrowding.”

Alas, the gravity of the situation was lost in the tussle to land the best blow, with Starmer ridiculing the Prime Minister for being “on the front line of the war against lanyards” and Sunak jeering that his adversary was so technologically inept “he’d probably have called James Watt a ‘steam-bro’”. None of that will be of any comfort to the victims of serious crime or those locked up in dangerous overcrowded prisons – or indeed to the women failed by the surgical mesh scandal. The session ended with the distinct sense that politicians of all parties just need to grow up.

[See also: The strange death of conservatism]

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