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9 November 2022

PMQs: the Gavin Williamson scandal makes Rishi Sunak look weak

The Prime Minister’s lacklustre performance in the Common today will not quell disquiet on the Tory backbenches.

By Freddie Hayward

Rishi Sunak rose to the despatch box today (9 November) with his authority undermined and his judgement under question after Gavin Williamson resigned last night because of bullying allegations. It was not a good way to start your third PMQs. 

Sunak promised professionalism and integrity in his first speech as prime minister, but he leads a party that is divided and pockmarked with scandal. His recitation of that promise in the Commons today elicited laughter from the opposition and scepticism from his own backbenchers. Conservatives appointed the Prime Minister for two primary reasons. First, to prevent financial meltdown. Second, to restore integrity to government. In his first two weeks in the job, he’s been unable to deliver on the second of those. Again, not a good way to start your third PMQs. 

These are easy pickings for Keir Starmer. Last week the Labour leader pressed the PM on the Channel crossings crisis and the escalating situation at migrant processing facilities. This week he had Sunak’s first ministerial resignation to play with. His first three questions revolved around Williamson, looking to portray the Prime Minister as too weak to control his party. Sunak did not do anything to relieve his backbenchers of that impression. At one point, a colleague had to tap him on the shoulder because he hadn’t realised Starmer had finished a question, so engrossed was he in his notes.

Sunak’s jibes are now routine and Starmer has refined the ripostes. The Prime Minister’s main attack line is that the Labour leader also has bad judgement because he tried to get Jeremy Corbyn elected. But, given Starmer spent his first two years as leader purging the party of Corbynism, that won’t suffice. Another is that Starmer supports recent protests such as Just Stop Oil. He doesn’t.

Sunak’s lacklustre performance will not quell disquiet on his backbenches. Disunity breeds disunity. Can Sunak break that cycle? Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions suggests not.

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