Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were at the funeral of Betty Boothroyd, the former Commons Speaker, today so their deputies – Dominic Raab and Angela Rayner – faced off for Prime Minister’s Questions. The B-team usually skirt over policy in favour of shallow jibes designed to rile up their backbenchers, but the dynamic was different today. As Rayner pointed out, this could be Raab’s last time fielding questions during PMQs. If an investigation into allegations of bullying goes against him, then he has said he will resign. Sunak would lose one of his closest allies, one of his first supporters at the start of last summer’s Conservative leadership contest, to scandal.
Rayner didn’t only want to skewer Raab, who is also the Justice Secretary, on his impending doom. She also wanted to grill him on the low charge rates for violence against women and the depletion of neighbourhood policing. The government’s push on antisocial behaviour this week mimics Starmer’s speech on crime last week. Westminster seems to be arriving at a consensus over the central problems facing the country, if not the solutions.
The deputy Labour leader combined the two issues with amusing effect. “Under his new antisocial behaviour [policy], does he think more bullies will be brought to justice?” she asked, before shifting to the government’s record on crime and policing with an eye to stealing the Conservatives’ reputation as the party of law and order. Labour Party sources believe the issue will feature prominently in the forthcoming local elections campaign. And they see an opening: polling from More in Common and Public First found that the public trusted Labour to tackle crime better than the Conservatives by a margin of 58 to 42 per cent.
Part of the strategy is to focus on violence against women. Rayner ran through damning statistics on rape cases. Three hundred women are estimated to be raped every day. Only 1.6 per cent of rapists are charged with the crime – let alone convicted. And victims can wait years for their cases to be heard in a court. (Rayner said the average was more than three years; a report from Rape Crisis this month puts the figure at 2.3 years.) In response, Raab called for the opposition to support the government’s Victims and Prisoner Bill.
Rayner then circled back to her opening theme and delivered a brutal appraisal, a eulogy of the Justice Secretary’s time in office, concluding with a challenge: “Will he walk before he’s pushed?” Westminster waits to see Raab’s fate.