PMQs in the run-up to any election will always be something of a bloodbath. Today was no exception.
Keir Starmer opened up proceedings by asking Rishi Sunak if he agreed with the assessment of the Conservative chairman Greg Hands that public services were in “pretty good shape”. The Prime Minister did not directly answer the question, instead casually referencing “record investment” in the NHS and more reforms to the education system. The answer was pretty insubstantial. It was clear: Sunak was not going to be defending Conservative policy today. He was in attack mode – and Labour was in his firing line.
There were several serious issues this week that could have dominated today’s questions. The Office for National Statistics revealed this morning (19 April) that food prices are rising at their highest rate in 45 years, and the country has been grappling with the prospect of ongoing strike action and a buckling health service. Yet the leaders once again decided to focus on crime. After weeks of announcements, speeches and controversial attack ads, one could wonder if there was anything left to say on the subject. But this is the issue the parties are concentrating all their energies on when it comes to local elections.
Starmer, in his usual lawyerly fashion, was armed with stats, facts and case studies. Only one in 100 rapists are going to court because the Tories broke the criminal justice system and people can’t get the police to investigate crime, he said. Then about a prison officer who had been attacked by a people smuggler and waited two years for justice due to a backlogged court system. He and his benches remained stony-faced, as if bolstering the seriousness of the subject matter.
Sunak, on the other hand, seemed unfazed by the leader of the opposition’s assessment. He attacked Starmer’s record as director for public prosecutions (DPP) with smug laughter and brought out a “special note” that evidenced a pension increase following his role as DPP, as if it were a comedic prop. He repeated claims that the Conservatives were recruiting 20,000 police officers (failing to mention they had previously cut those 20,000), and pointed to their new crackdown on grooming gangs as a large “gotcha!” for Labour.
Flanked on either side by Dominic Raab and Suella Braverman, Sunak had the energy of a sixth former being egged on by his peers. The three were sniggering and shaking their heads at Starmer when he spoke, and encouraging raucous laughter from their colleagues, causing the Speaker to intervene on several occasions.
Starmer mostly held his own, but his performance at times felt a little strained. Once or twice he lost the necessary emphasis to his questions, trailing off at inopportune moments and failing to keep annoyance from his face while the Tory backbenchers jeered. Sunak’s personal taunts, dubbing Starmer “Sir Softie” and “lefty lawyer”, and laughter felt more cringeworthy than comic, as it became clear that Sunak had little interest in defending the Conservative record on crime.
Sunak’s approach may have done Labour a favour. Following internal infighting in the latter over the vicious communications campaign against Sunak and his record on crime, many may have wished for Starmer to move away from this issue altogether. But today’s questions made the Conservatives look all too cavalier. By treating the issue of crime as a platform for personal attacks and gags and refusing to engage with the detail, the Tories have ceded authority on the matter to Labour.