Keir Starmer was spoilt for choice when planning how to attack Rishi Sunak this week at PMQs.
Just hours beforehand the Prime Minister had announced there would be no independent investigation into claims his Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, had tried to get special treatment when she was caught speeding before accepting points on her driving licence. Meanwhile, increasingly irate allies of Boris Johnson blame the Cabinet Office for the former prime minister being referred to the police yesterday over new allegations that he broke lockdown rules.
Instead the Labour leader went for where Sunak is really vulnerable: immigration statistics. “How many work visas were issued to foreign nationals last year?” he asked.
Sunak initially tried to dismiss the question by telling MPs that new statistics, which are expected to show a huge jump in legal migration, would be available this week. Starmer countered that the figure for last year was already available and stood at around 250,000, before reminding the PM that he had stood on a manifesto pledge to reduce immigration.
He then moved on to punch the Braverman bruise. “Why does he think his Home Secretary has such a problem coping with points-based systems?” That made even Braverman smirk.
Immigration used to be Labour’s weak spot and Sunak tried to bring out some old lines in response, saying Starmer wanted an “open door” immigration policy and the return of free movement – a difficult blow to land given Starmer has taken so much flak from his own activists for ditching this pledge.
Starmer pointed out to the PM that some businesses are paying foreign workers 20 per cent less than British ones – a trend which led many Brexit campaigners to claim immigration had an impact on wages overall – and that the government has failed to train British workers. He also said the apprenticeship levy was failing. This is a difficult, long-term problem that the Conservatives have repeatedly vowed to grapple with, and it is a fair argument that the government has not approached it with any measure of zeal.
An investigation by the Independent has revealed that £100m of the levy has been spent on subsidising MBAs for executives, who were earning salaries as high as £100,000-a-year. The number of people starting apprenticeships fell 6 per cent in the first quarter of 2022-23, and engineering and tech apprenticeship starts have fallen 34 per cent over the last nine years.
It is a vital issue for any politician claiming they want to level up the country. The Sutton Trust recently pointed out that young people from low-income backgrounds are under-represented in higher and degree-level apprenticeships, and that the biggest decline in apprenticeships has been in areas of high deprivation.
Starmer said: “Speeding into the void left by the PM comes the Home Secretary, not with a plan for skills, growth or wages, no, her big idea is for British workers to become fruit pickers, just in case – I can hardly believe she said this – they forget how to do things. Does the PM support this ‘let them pick fruit’ ambition for Britain or does he wish he had the strength to give her a career change of her own?”
Sunak, on the back foot, reminded Starmer that the government can claim success in one skills area: reading. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, out this week, England now ranks in the top five internationally for the reading ability of children aged nine and ten.
But while the Conservatives deserve some credit for this, today’s PMQs underlined that, despite many announcements about immigration, industrial strategy, apprenticeships and skills, the government has not joined the dots. And when the new immigration numbers (expected to show legal migration is on course to break one million next year) are published, familiar frustrations about how the economy has been managed will resurface.
Labour will be only too happy to remind the Conservatives who is to blame, along with the fact that they have been in power for 13 years.
[See also: The Tory crack-up]