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  1. Politics
2 November 2022

PMQs: Sunak will need more than tired lines about Brexit and Corbyn to land a blow on Labour

The Prime Minister may want to reopen old wounds, but the opposition is very clearly under different management.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer enraged Remainers in his own party when he said earlier this year that rejoining the EU single market would not be in Labour’s next election manifesto. At today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (2 November), Rishi Sunak discovered why that was such a significant and necessary policy change for his opponent.

The Conservative government is losing control of Britain’s border. Thousands of migrants are making the perilous journey across the English Channel to the UK. The situation was brought to a point of crisis this week when the desperate conditions for asylum seekers at the Manston processing centre in Kent were revealed. There were reports of disease and illness at the overcrowded facility. A petrol bomb attack at another centre in Dover on Sunday (30 October) made addressing the matter even more urgent.

The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, sought to deflect the blame she was getting by claiming in the Commons on Monday (31 October) that Labour had no policy for dealing with the “invasion of our southern coast”. But Braverman was only giving Starmer ammunition for his second clash with Sunak at the despatch box. “[The Prime Minister’s] home secretary says the asylum system is broken. Who broke it?” was the Labour leader’s opening question today.

Sunak campaigned for Brexit. The 2016 EU referendum promised to “take back” control of Britain’s borders, and the Tories have long enjoyed turning previous Labour calls for a softer Brexit into an issue that splits its support among voters.

At PMQs, the Prime Minister reverted to saying it was the Conservatives that offered the referendum, and that Labour was in favour of unlimited immigration. But the same tired lines feel empty given the governing party, in power for 12 years, has failed to deliver on that (perhaps impossible) promise of Brexit. But “no one”, Starmer delighted in pointing out, “wants open borders on this side of the House. They [the Tories] have lost control of the borders on their side of the House,” and he told the PM to “get a grip”.

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Starmer also showed he would not take accusations from Sunak that Labour was “soft on crime”, adding “I prosecuted people smugglers, he can’t even get an asylum claim processed”. The Labour leader also held Sunak’s feet to the fire over whether Braverman had breached national security by leaking documents on her personal email, and whether she had ignored legal advice about the Manston asylum facility.

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The Prime Minister dodged the legal advice question, but again reached for a response that feels dated. He said Starmer had raised the topic of national security but backed Jeremy Corbyn for PM in 2019, and though the opposition leader may want to forget, “we will remind him every week”.

Corbyn, of course, is no longer a Labour MP, having lost the whip in 2020. Sunak may want to reopen old wounds, but Labour is very clearly under different management and the polls would suggest that voters approve. Judging by the faces of Tory MPs – who were considerably more subdued than in the PM’s debut last week – Sunak needs to change the record if he wants to land a blow.

[See also: Leader: What comes after Conservatism]