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15 June 2022

PMQs: Keir Starmer dodges the Rwanda trap

The Labour leader avoided a row over deportations and doubled down on the issue likely to dominate the next general election: the cost-of-living crisis.

By Freddie Hayward

Maybe it was the warm weather, but MPs on both sides of the chamber were louder, rowdier and more excited than usual at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (15 June). Boris Johnson certainly looked red-faced as he rose to the despatch box, barely audible among the cries from his backbenchers.

The heat was getting to Keir Starmer too. At recent PMQs, the Labour leader has flirted with a sense of humour. But any hesitancy about the need for gags has been totally jettisoned since his shadow cabinet anonymously briefed this week that their leader was “boring voters to death”. Gone was “lawyerly”, “forensic” Starmer, in came Starmer who compares the Prime Minister to Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars and claims he was giving the public “the ick”. To add to the theatrics, at one point Starmer threw his arms open to the benches opposite and boldly read out disparaging quotes about their leader, calling on them to own up.

[ See also: What does Christopher Geidt’s resignation mean for Labour? ]

Starmer’s comedic escapades were naturally met with moos and boos from the Tory benches. But he at least made sure to return to the cost-of-living crisis after each gag. “When did screwing business [queue more oohs from the Tory benches, seemingly delighted at the connotations of the word “screwing”] turn from a flippant comment into economic policy?” The combination of gags and dire economic figures proved too much for some. One Tory MP resorted to putting her fingers in her ears, while a member of the public gallery crossed his arms, closed his eyes and appeared to have a nap. 

But amid Starmer’s attempts to prove that he, in fact, is not boring and he has, in fact, watched his zeitgeist tape, a strategy for Labour emerged. Keir Starmer had a choice at today’s PMQs: comply with the government’s attempt to shift the conversation on to the Northern Ireland protocol and deportations to Rwanda, or double down on the issue that will likely dominate the next general election: the cost-of-living crisis. His first question – “Mr Speaker, Britain is set for lower growth than every major economy except Russia. Why?” – made his decision clear. That decision seemed to unnerve the Prime Minister who frantically tried to bring up this summer’s planned railway disruption, calling on Starmer to denounce “Labour’s rail strikes”. While Starmer happily said he didn’t want the strikes to happen, the question for Labour is whether it can maintain the focus on the cost-of-living crisis in the months to come.

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[See also: Tell us who you really are, Keir Starmer]

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