This was a PMQs of two leaders hurtling towards a general election.
Rishi Sunak took to the ballot box this week with the air of a man who knows his party is behind him. His energy was high, and he had a smile on his face, which disappeared only momentarily when the Speaker pointed out he had answered Keir Starmer’s question on housing with an answer on windfall taxes.
The Prime Minister’s confidence is unsurprising. He has, it would seem, successfully negotiated a long and complex political issue that has been hanging over his party and the country: the Northern Ireland protocol. Starmer avoided it entirely, which is itself notable: if the Labour leader doesn’t mention it, consider Sunak’s Windsor framework a success.
Instead, Starmer concentrated on those issues that will matter most at the ballot box. The economy, housing and childcare will likely top voter’s list of priorities, and the Labour leader tackled them by highlighting the government’s inaction. It is not surprising that Starmer chose this week to go big on these issues: Labour has been fleshing out its own plans recently. His line of questioning not only tried to draw attention to Sunak’s failures, but to Labour’s pledges too.
Sunak’s New Year’s speech spoke of wanting to restore “optimism, hope and pride in Britain” by building better futures for families. At the time, I noted that this would be difficult without addressing specific issues of childcare, housing and chronically low wages. Starmer seemingly agrees.
“The average family in Britain will be poorer than the average family in Poland by 2030,” Starmer said, before insisting the Prime Minister should “get rid of the loopholes in his botched windfall tax and finally choose family finances over oil profit” – just two of at least five mentions of “families” he made today.
His final question concerned the “lockdown files”, the Telegraph‘s damning trove of leaked WhatsApp messages sent during the pandemic to and from the then health secretary Matt Hancock, which expose the government’s handling of Covid. Starmer even couched this in the context of family, pointing to the impact the messages would have on those “who made enormous sacrifices for the good of the country, or who tragically lost loved ones”. We are witnessing a Labour attack line in the making: it’s the Conservatives vs families.
Finishing with a nod to the lockdown files was a savvy move. Labour know it cannot rely on Conservative sleaze alone in its election campaign, and that it must set out its own policy stall. Nevertheless, Starmer was showing how accusations and examples of government incompetence continue to emerge, and so do the questions it must answer.
Sunak, too, is entering election mode. His performance was buoyant, and, bolstered by his party, he trashed Labour’s policies, accusing it of “unfunded inflationary spending commitments”.
Both leaders are feeling strong. Starmer used his questions to draw attention to Labour’s burgeoning policy agenda, and has grown more confident and relaxed alongside the party’s poll lead. Meanwhile, Sunak’s fruitful deal with the EU this week has given him the boost he needed, enough to attack Labour. The race is on.