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26 October 2022

Rishi Sunak’s first PMQs exposes his political vulnerabilities

The Prime Minister struggled to defend the reappointment of Suella Braverman and his boast that he took public money out of “deprived urban areas”.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak leads a Conservative Party whose poll ratings are dismal. In fact, that is an understatement.

Liz Truss’s 50-day premiership left a £40bn blackhole in the nation’s finances and a 30-point Tory polling deficit. So despite his assured demeanour, Sunak will have dreaded his first PMQs.

Keir Starmer’s first question was over the PM’s decision to reappoint Suella Braverman as home secretary, despite her resignation last week after breaching the ministerial code. Most reports suggest Sunak was forced to do as much to prevent Braverman, a darling of the Conservative right, from backing Boris Johnson’s leadership bid. 

The PM, said Starmer, was “so weak he’s done a grubby deal trading national security because he was scared to lose another leadership election”. Sunak rejected a call for an investigation but did commit to appointing an ethics adviser.

The PM’s unhappy compromises were challenged further by Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, who accused Sunak of being prepared to “shamelessly swap red boxes for political support” by making Gavin Williamson a minister. Williamson was sacked as defence secretary by Theresa May for a serious national security breach, but the former chief whip has been a valuable asset in helping Sunak realise his ambitions.

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Sunak looked brittle and could only reply that Williamson was sacked “four years ago”. But he soon turned to Starmer’s vulnerabilities, noting that his opponent was then serving on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench.

[See also: Rishi Sunak deserves not to be defined by his race – like everyone else]

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Starmer retorted by challenging Sunak over non-dom tax status, which allows individual to avoid paying tax on foreign earnings (and which until recently was claimed by Sunak’s billionaire wife Akshata Murthy). 

“I don’t need to explain to the Prime Minister how non-dom status works – he already knows all about that,” Starmer quipped. “Why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is?”

Sunak, who is selling his party as “compassionate”, notably did not defend the policy, admitting he will “have to take difficult decisions to restore economic stability”. 

Offering a glimpse of the battles to come, Sunak then tried to draw a dividing line between his leadership and Starmer’s. The PM claimed he had been “honest” during the Tory leadership race whereas the Labour leader pandered to members and “told his party what they wanted to hear” on nationalisation – an agenda Starmer has since abandoned.

Sunak sought to cast himself as a realist, while placing Starmer in the same category as Truss, declaring “leadership is not selling fairy tales, it is confronting challenges”. Applause on the Tory benches reached such a pitch that Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was forced to intervene.

Sunak struggled, however, to deal with questions about the infamous video, first revealed by the New Statesman, in which he boasted that he took public money out of “deprived urban areas” and redistributed it to more affluent areas such as Tunbridge Wells. 

It led to the bizarre spectacle of Conservative MPs cheering Sunak’s declaration that, after 12 years of Tory rule, deprivation exists both in the north and south and in rural and coastal areas. Sunak tried to take the sting out of the attack by saying Starmer “rarely leaves north London” but his riposte fell flat.

Overall, this was a solid first ousting for No10’s latest occupant. But Sunak, who has been yearning to become prime minister since Boris Johnson made him chancellor – and perhaps even since his first lessons at Winchester College – has had a long time to prepare himself for this moment.

His handling of the Covid-19 crisis at the Treasury, and in particular the furlough scheme, saw him become the most popular politician in the country. But whether he can ever come close to such heights again is far from certain.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s ruthless streak should worry Labour]