Keir Starmer began his questions to the Prime Minister today by welcoming the new Labour MP for the City of Chester, Sam Dixon, to the Chamber. The by-election last week was the party’s best performance in the city’s history.
That set the tone of what was to come. Starmer stuck to the same strategy – portraying Rishi Sunak as weak – that he’s pursued since the two first faced off over the dispatch box. Events in the past few days have only given the Labour leader more ammunition.
His first question was about the government’s U-turn over mandatory housing targets. “What changed?” he asked. The answer is that nearly 60 of Sunak’s backbenchers decided they didn’t want the targets. In today’s Conservative Party, where MPs feel free to pick and choose government policies to support, that’s enough to sink Sunak’s legislative agenda. As Starmer is successfully pointing out week after week, the question is quickly becoming, what can Sunak do?
Housing wasn’t the only problem Sunak faced. The Labour leader went on to ask the Prime Minister about the Conservative peer Michelle Mone, who is accused of profiting from PPE contracts during the pandemic. How did she end up with “£30 million of taxpayers money in her bank account?” Starmer asked. Mone has taken a leave of absence from the House of Lords and Sunak seemed to confirm that she had also had the whip removed. The scandal surrounding PPE contracts is set to continue, and it is another blow to Sunak’s long-forgotten promise to restore “integrity” and “professionalism” to government.
On top of that, the Prime Minister’s attempt to move from the PPE controversy to blaming the Labour Party for strikes was unconvincing. Sunak has stopped trying to link Starmer with Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps realising that it didn’t have the desired effect. But he encountered similar problems in trying to apply the tactic to strikes. The Conservatives are the ones in government and voters are more likely to blame them for the breakdown of industrial relations than the opposition. Sunak cannot simply escape the problems he faces by blaming Labour, which hasn’t been in power for 12 years.
The other big story from this week’s PMQs was the debut performance of the new Westminster leader of the SNP, Stephen Flynn, who was elected as Ian Blackford’s replacement last night. Gone were the long, booming denunciations of the government and in came a more bullish, direct questioning style. While the tone may have changed, the subject matter has not. For as long as the SNP get questions at PMQs, independence will come up every week.
Flynn has, however, broadened the SNP’s line of attack. The polls show a slight improvement for Labour in Scotland and Flynn appears anxious to target Labour as well as the government. “What does [the Prime Minister] consider to be the greatest achievement of the Conservative Party and government since 2019: leaving the single market and customs union, ending freedom of movement, denying Scotland democracy or getting the Labour Party to agree with all of the above?” he asked. That’s a savvy question which highlights a problem with Labour’s Brexit policy: doubling down on a hard Brexit might be popular in England, but it leaves Labour exposed in Remain-voting Scotland. A strong Labour majority would require a resurgence in Scotland: something Flynn seems keen to stop.