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27 April 2022

What we learned from the last PMQs before the local elections

Party leaders made their pitches to voters before polling day next week, but the cloud of sexism hangs over Westminster.

By Ailbhe Rea

The Angela Rayner story is about classism – to Boris Johnson’s discomfort

Keir Starmer began PMQs today (27 April) with a comment about the Mail on Sunday’s controversial article about Angela Rayner – which quoted anonymous Conservative MPs as saying that the deputy leader of the Labour Party crosses and uncrosses her legs to distract the Prime Minister at PMQs. “I hope the PM has sent a clear message that there’s no place for sexism and misogyny, or looking down on people because of where they come from, in his party, in this House or in modern Britain,” Starmer said.

The story has been widely condemned by all sides of the House for its misogyny. But Rayner, in broadcast interviews, and Starmer, here at PMQs, have highlighted the classism of the remarks. The Labour deputy leader gave an interview to Lorraine Kelly on ITV yesterday (26 April) that was widely shared on social media in which she said the article “wasn’t just about me as a woman, it was also steeped in classism and about where I come from, where I grew up”.

Johnson only condemned the misogyny, and left Starmer’s comment about “looking down on people because of where they come from” unacknowledged. Classism is an uncomfortable accusation for the Conservatives. Johnson prides himself on being likeable among people of all backgrounds, while his party is desperate to retain its 2019 general election reputation of being devoted to “the people’s priorities”.

Labour is capitalising on the Conservatives’ own goal and turning a hurtful claim against Rayner into an opportunity. “I know how it feels to be looked down on,” she tweeted yesterday, “and I know what it’s like struggling to make ends meet. Whatever people say about me, I’m proud of my background. It informs my Labour values and our Party’s priorities – offering real help to people, right now.”

The cloud of sexism hangs over Westminster

While the two party leaders sparred at the despatch box, a story was breaking elsewhere that a male Conservative MP was caught watching porn on his phone in the House of Commons, as revealed by female colleagues – including Theresa May – in a highly charged meeting of Conservative MPs last night. As unnamed politicians on both sides of the House stand accused of sexual misconduct, there was a sense in the chamber that Westminster is braced for fresh waves of #MeToo revelations. Notably, the Green MP Caroline Lucas secured an agreement from the Prime Minister that sexual harassment is a sackable offence. 

“Better or worse for working people?” was Keir Starmer’s question every time

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Both party leaders used this PMQs, the last before the local elections, to make their tub-thumping pitch to voters ahead of polling day. For Labour, it was all about the cost-of-living crisis and tax rises after Rishi Sunak’s Spring Statement. For the Conservatives, it was about low council taxes, more bin collections and financial mismanagement under Labour. In a barnstorming mini-speech in response to Starmer’s final question, Johnson listed “bankrupt” Labour councils and accused the party of leaving the country bankrupt when it left office. That is how the argument will be playing out on doorsteps.

The Conservatives threw the DUP a bone ahead of the Stormont elections

Johnson, flanked by the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, gave the DUP a helping hand. With the party polling behind Sinn Féin and bleeding support to other Unionist parties ahead of the crucial Stormont election next week, Johnson twice signalled that he is prepared to scrap or change the Northern Ireland protocol. “It is vital that the arrangements we have in Northern Ireland should command the support of all sides,” he said. “That’s what our government will undertake to ensure.”

Later, he added: “there is clearly an economic cost to the protocol that is also turning into a political problem and an imbalance in sentiment… we need to rectify that balance for the sake of the Good Friday Agreement on which this country depends.” We may well see that clip being shared by the DUP in the approach to polling day.

[See also: All you need to know about the 2022 local elections]

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