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PMQs: The Tories will need a “bigger note” to excuse economic failures

Keir Starmer turned the Conservatives’ favourite line about the infamous “there is no money” letter against them.

By Zoë Grünewald

With the local elections just a day away, PMQs was boisterous this week as Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak rattled out their campaign lines and tried to make a final impression before polls open.

The Labour leader pressed the Prime Minister on his party’s dire record on housebuilding and the economic mistakes of his predecessor, Liz Truss, telling Sunak around 850,000 people have seen their mortgage rates rise.

Labour has vowed this week to be the party of home ownership, and said it would bring in housing targets to stop nimby councils blocking developments.

Starmer is trying hard to capture swing voters disillusioned by thirteen years of Conservative government. By zeroing in on housing, Starmer was appealing to those voters who may be more likely to vote Tory – homeowners and people with families – who may be turned off by increased mortgage rises, interest rate rises and the cost-of-living crisis. He cut straight to the point. “Does the Prime Minister know how many mortgage payers are paying higher rates since the Tory party crashed the economy last autumn?”

Sunak seemed unfazed to begin with. The Conservative record on homeownership was “crystal clear”, he said, pointing to their stamp duty cuts and record on the number of first-time buyers. When Starmer revealed that the answer to his question was “almost a million”, Sunak appeared slighly nervous and sought to dismiss Starmer’s targets policy as trying to “concrete over the green belt”.

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[See also: Why Rishi Sunak wants to delay Sue Gray’s job with Labour for as long as possible]

Starmer has begun to prosecute an argument on the economy and housing, and he has found Sunak’s weaknesses. Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget and the cost-of-living crisis have brought the Conservative’s record on the economy into disrepute. Sunak also wanted housebuilding targets but was forced to give in to Tory backbenchers who opposed them. When he tried to claim that abandoning targets had given power back to local communities, Starmer retorted simply: “The power he’s given to local communities is not to build houses.”

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Starmer is good at bringing Conservative failures into context. He took us through the experience of an average homeowning family, forced to spend an extra £4,000 on their mortgage. “Their eldest paying hundreds more in rent. The youngest still stuck in the spare room because they need an extra £9,000 for a deposit.” That £9,000, Starmer reminded the prime minister, is roughly the “annual bill to heat [Sunak’s] swimming pool”.

Though Sunak is arguably better at keeping cool than Boris Johnson was, it was clear this week that he is beginning to become rattled. As Starmer deployed Labour’s favourite attack line, that the Tories have committed “economic vandalism” and used the public’s money as a “casino”, Sunak could only trot out the same old lines, claiming that Labour’s plans would only increase public debt and hike up taxes. There were one or two newer attacks: that the Labour mayor of LondonSadiq Khan, had only built 30,000 new houses and that Welsh Labour has missed its housing targets. But these statistics looked insignificant in comparison to Starmer’s calm, measured assertions. “Debt doubled since 2010, growth down, tax up, economy crashed,” Starmer said. And then he gave a wink to the infamous “I’m afraid there is no money” note left by a minister in the last Labour government, which has been a favourite Tory jibe for the past 13 years: “they’re going to need a bigger note”.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s best man: can James Forsyth help save the Conservatives?]