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30 March 2022

What we learned from PMQs

The Brexit playbook is back.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer punched a bruise on Tory taxes…

The Labour leader began Prime Minister’s Questions with a simple question: are the Conservatives under Boris Johnson a tax-cutting party or a tax-raising one? The Prime Minister insisted that his party is a determined tax-cutter, citing some of the measures (such as the cut to fuel duty) that Rishi Sunak emphasised during last week’s Spring Statement. Keir Starmer then delighted in wheeling out the statistics that Labour has been hammering home all week: that Johnson’s government is presiding over the highest tax burden in 70 years, and for every £6 they are taking in taxes they are only giving £1 back.

…and enjoyed forcing Boris Johnson to defend Rishi Sunak

The Labour line of questioning forced Johnson to defend his Chancellor at length, despite the tensions between the pair after the unexpected backlash against the Spring Statement and their ongoing disagreement on fiscal policy. Sunak has been resisting pressure from Johnson and cabinet colleagues to commit to more public spending or to scrap planned tax rises. In the end, Johnson was reduced to singing from Sunak’s hymn sheet to defend the government’s current approach, reminding Starmer of the spending during the pandemic that now necessitates higher taxes and limited help with the cost-of-living crisis.

“I don’t know where he’s been for the past two years,” Johnson said of Starmer. “But even by the standards of Captain Hindsight, to obliterate the biggest pandemic from his memory, to obliterate the £408bn that we’ve had to spend, is quite extraordinary. This is a government that is getting on with reducing the tax burden wherever we can.” The Prime Minister became increasingly uncomfortable over the course of the session, as he fielded more and more questions from opposition MPs about the cost-of-living crisis. “I do agree that people are facing a very tough time at the moment,” he said in a sombre tone.

Boris Johnson returned to the Brexit playbook

Rattled by the Labour leader’s questions on tax policy, the Prime Minister tried out a new attack line: “He would take us back into the EU and take us back into lockdown.” As the cost-of-living crisis pushes the government into an uncomfortable position, Johnson revealed that he would much prefer to revert back to the cultural dividing lines of the last election — and he is right that this is a topic Starmer would rather avoid.

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Tory MPs aren’t happy with the government approach to Ukrainian refugees

Johnson also came under pressure from his own backbenches over help for Ukrainian refugees. Roger Gale urged him to “cut through the Home Office red tape, simplify the application process, and get people into the country”. Johnson emphasised that “we’re processing a thousand a day”, 25,000 visas had already been issued, and “there is no limit on the scheme”.

The pressure from the Tory benches is further evidence that the government underestimated public support for Ukrainian refugees, and that public attitudes to immigration and asylum are less predictable than ministers might believe.

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