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23 November 2022

PMQs: The SNP’s defiant Ian Blackford takes centre stage

“The very idea that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations is now dead and buried,” cried the SNP’s Westminster leader.

By Freddie Hayward

This was a very strange Prime Minister’s Questions. Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak were so keen to deliver their prepared soundbites that the exchange at times descended into an incoherent muddle.

The Labour leader began his questioning with a long condemnation of Fifa’s decision to ban One Love armbands, meant to protest discrimination in Qatar, at the World Cup. This was followed by a screeching pivot to the economy for the actual question. “Britain faces the lowest growth of any OECD nation over the next two years. Why?” Starmer asked as MPs looked on bemused. What followed was an energised duel over the precise figures contained in a report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, to the delight of both leaders’ backbenchers. We didn’t learn much new. Talk of non-doms from Starmer, union barons from Sunak. 

Stamer’s final question did highlight something interesting. “[The Prime Minister] won’t push through planning reform; instead he kills off the dream of home ownership,” Starmer said, in reference to the government’s decision to reverse planning reforms following a rebellion on its back benches. Labour is gunning to replace the Conservatives as the party of homeownership, Sunak can’t defend himself because of divergent views in his party. Those fractures are, as ever, holding Sunak back.

How is Sunak faring during these exchanges? In terms of style, the Prime Minister’s performance today resembled those during the Conservative leadership debates when he was bursting with facts and figures to prove Liz Truss wrong. His enthusiasm had the same effect today. He responded to Starmer’s points with such gusto that the Speaker had to tell him to stop, and he never dropped the smirk.

[See also: How long can Suella Braverman hold on as Home Secretary?] 

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The Prime Minister’s tactics were no more effective. Sunak has given up his ploy of bringing up Starmer’s time in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet to cast him as extreme. Instead, he sought to blame New Labour for failing to ban non-domiciled status, which gets people favourable tax arrangements, despite the Conservatives being in government for 12 years.

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Still, Sunak was not the main story today. Step forward Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP at Westminster. Blackford needed to address this morning’s ruling from the Supreme Court that the Scottish Parliament could not legislate for an independence referendum without Westminster’s approval. He was as defiant as ever. “The very idea that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations is now dead and buried,” Blackford boomed from deep within his ample frame.

But what will the SNP’s strategy be now? “Last year the people of Scotland voted for a Scottish Parliament with a majority and the mandate to deliver an independence referendum,” Blackford said. Relying on the argument that their election to the Scottish Parliament provides them with a mandate only underlines that the SNP is now beholden to the UK government on whether a referendum takes place. For all Blackford’s strident rhetoric, today’s judgement was a blow to the SNP’s campaign.

[See also: Supreme Court defeat should be a signal for Nicola Sturgeon to move on, but she won’t]

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