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22 February 2023

PMQs: Keir Starmer plays Rishi Sunak and Tory MPs off against each other

The Labour leader’s strategy on the Northern Ireland protocol is to let the Conservative Party cannibalise itself.

By Freddie Hayward

There were murmurs in Westminster today that Keir Starmer would ask Rishi Sunak about strikes at PMQs, leaving the thorny issue of a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol – which puts the British-EU trade border in the Irish Sea – to Conservative backbenchers. Instead, Starmer became their spokesman.

This was a calculated performance, designed to lay bare, to those sat behind Rishi Sunak, the contradictions and trade-offs that the government must confront. “Does the Prime Minister agree with me that [the protocol] has been poorly implemented and that the basis for any deal must be removing unnecessary checks on goods?” Starmer asked. That Sunak is unlikely to answer during ongoing negotiations will not soothe his Tory colleagues, some of whom want all unnecessary checks scrapped. 

Next question then. “Will he confirm that to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the deal he’s negotiating is going to see Northern Ireland continue to follow some EU law?” Again, Sunak avoided the question. The faces of Conservative backbenches grew disconcerted. Starmer went on: will the Prime Minister be honest and say the European Court of Justice is always going to have some role in Northern Ireland? In response, Sunak accused the Labour leader of “surrendering” to the EU. To which Starmer replied: “It’s not my questions he’s avoiding, it’s their questions he’s avoiding.”

[See also: Is Keir Starmer setting himself up for failure?]

The Labour leader then shifted from voicing the concerns of Tory backbenchers to needling them. He derided “the malcontents, the wreckers, the reckless” as the president of the German Bundestag, Bärbel Bas, watched on from the gallery.

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Now for the finale. Having extracted from Sunak the apparent assurance that the House of Commons would vote on the intended deal, and stoked Tory divisions, Starmer once again vowed that Labour would ensure the deal was voted through: “Country before party.”

This was a coherent set of questions from Starmer, with a political purpose. As I set out in the New Statesman‘s Morning Call newsletter earlier this week, Labour’s tactic seems to be to sit back, look constructive and watch the Conservative Party cannibalise itself. The Labour leader was always disoriented by Boris Johnson’s PMQs performances. He couldn’t pin him down. Now, he reliably comes armed with six questions that expose the Prime Minister’s weakness and underline Labour’s strength. And it’s bearing fruit.

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From the Conservatives’ perspective, the key news from PMQs today was that any deal would likely be put to a vote. “Of course parliament will express its view,” the Prime Minister said. If that means a vote (his spokesperson refused to confirm) then the support of his backbenchers becomes even more important.

Whether he gets their backing will largely depend on the response of the DUP. Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader, offered no indication that he supported the proposed deal and called on the government to rewrite “the legally binding treaty text”. That’s something the EU negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, does not have a mandate to do. The reaction of the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers will depend on the details of the deal under negotiation. In any case, Sunak’s handling of this process has weakened his grip on the party. Briefing that a deal was done before securing the support of the DUP was always going to lead to divisions with his backbenches. Today’s PMQs brutally confirmed as much.

[See also: How Labour hopes to restore faith in the police]

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