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30 November 2022

PMQs: Rishi Sunak on the ropes over tax breaks for private schools

Keir Starmer forced the Prime Minister to defend the charitable status of schools such as Winchester College, which charges £45,000 a year in fees.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Tory MPs bellowed “more” as Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer finished duelling at Prime Minister’s Questions today. But it really was a case of the emptiest vessels making the most noise, because never has the Prime Minister’s defence sounded more hollow.

The Labour leader, whose experience of prosecuting a case is well known, forced Sunak into the uncomfortable position of defending the “handouts” private schools enjoy at the expense of the taxpayer thanks to their charitable status. Starmer picked the elite Winchester College, which Sunak attended, and made much of the inconvenient truth that Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, had supported removing the status from the schools.

“Winchester College has a rowing club, a rifle club, an extensive art collection and they charge over £45,000 in fees, so why did he hand them nearly £6m of taxpayers’ money, in what Michael Gove calls egregious state support?” Starmer asked.

Sunak took the risky strategy of weighing in to support the tax breaks after Starmer said the money could be better spent on closing the attainment gap at state schools. The Prime Minister accused the opposition leader of attacking the “hard-working aspirations of millions”.

Labour will have been delighted, as not only did Sunak’s reply show he is out of touch, but it suggests that those who cannot afford to send their children to a state school do not work hard or have aspirations. Just 7 per cent of the population is privately educated, so that’s a lot of people for the Prime Minister to pour scorn on.

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Starmer moved on to land some blows over Sunak’s “anti-growth backbenchers” who refuse to back house-building targets. Most are from Blue Wall areas and fear a Lib Dem challenge over development. “Every week he gets pushed around and every week he gets weaker,” said Starmer, using an old attack line from Tony Blair’s clashes with John Major.

Sunak reached for an old attack as well: that Labour MPs join picket lines. The problem for the PM, as other questions from MPs quickly revealed, is that after a decade of austerity millions of public sector workers are crying out for a pay rise. Voters are not necessarily unsympathetic.

The gap in dispatch box experience between Starmer and Sunak looks wider each time they meet. Those Tory MPs shouting “more” should be careful what they wish for.

[See also: How long can Rishi Sunak hold on to No 10?]

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