Amid the ongoing row over the tax affairs of the Tory chairman Nadhim Zahawi, there was a risk that this week’s PMQs would descend into a Westminster-centric stand-off.
But the Labour leader Keir Starmer established a serious tone early in the exchanges by raising the devastating case of the murder of Zara Aleena. The law graduate was murdered in June last year by Jordan McSweeney, a man with a history of violence who was nonetheless released from Belmarsh prison on licence – when a sentence is served on probation in the community.
A catalogue of failures in the probation service’s handling of his release were identified by the chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, in a report published this week. By not being categorised as a high-risk offender, he was, according to the report, “free” to commit this “most heinous” crime.
Starmer asked Rishi Sunak if he accepted the findings of the report, which the PM unsurprisingly agreed that he did, stating that a failure in the “risk assessment” had led to the terrible crime.
It was the answer Starmer expected and which prepared the ground for his next question. Did Sunak also agree that staff vacancies and excessive workloads in the probation service, factors criticised within the report, were ministerial responsibilities? When the Prime Minister riposted that the government was putting more money into probation and had backed tougher sentencing, it gave Starmer the chance to point out that Aleena’s family believed the government had “blood on its hands”. Sunak, he said, “should not be boasting about protecting women”.
Only after that did the Labour leader move on to the big political story of the week – the matter of the Conservatives’ tax-avoiding chairman.
“Does the Prime Minister agree that any politician who seeks to avoid the taxes they owe in this country is not fit to be in charge of taxpayers’ money?” Starmer asked, referring to Zahawi’s brief stint as chancellor, despite HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)’s investigation.
Sunak said he believed in “due process” but was wrong-footed when asked to explain what had changed since last week, before the Zahawi story had broken. The PM was forced to admit that he’d asked his ethics adviser to step in as new information had “come to light”. In other words, Sunak had to confirm in the Commons that he had been completely unaware that Zahawi had paid a settlement thought to be worth £4.8m to HMRC.
Which set the stage for Starmer’s final, and rather brutal, pay-off line about the Prime Minister: “Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?”
Tory MPs must have felt duty-bound to cheer Sunak’s reply that Starmer campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, but they can’t fail to notice that the opposition leader is regularly winning despatch box battles.