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21 June 2023

PMQs: Rishi Sunak sees how it all might end

The rattled Prime Minister could not defend himself against charges of a “Tory mortgage penalty”.

By Zoë Grünewald

Rishi Sunak may feel he woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning. Higher than expected inflation and headlines about the “mortgage ticking time-bomb” are a far from ideal backdrop for your weekly confrontation with the leader of the opposition.

Despite a rowdy cheer as he entered the chamber, Sunak immediately seemed harassed. Though he was characteristically loud and clear, pangs of annoyance crept into his voice as he faced off against Keir Starmer. The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, sat on his left, his brow furrowed throughout. At points a backbencher had their head in their hands. Was it the heat, or something else?

The Labour leader, on the other hand, was determined once again to prosecute the case for a Labour government. This week’s topic of choice, rising mortgage interest rates, is cutting through to the Conservatives’ base, and Starmer already has a catchy name for it in the wake of Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget: the “Tory mortgage penalty”. “Britain is facing a mortgage catastrophe. Does [the Prime Minister] agree with that?” Starmer asked. Sunak was off to a bad start and responded by immediately pivoting to one his beloved five pledges and explaining the mechanics behind the government’s pledge to reduce inflation.

The exchanges became increasingly tense. Jabs at Sunak’s abstention in the vote on the Privileges Committee report concluding that Boris Johnson misled parliament were well-timed. And Starmer pinned Sunak down on the crisis facing homeowners. Sunak flailed, trying to shrug off interest rates as a global problem by pointing to similar level across the Atlantic, and accusing Starmer of being “always focused on the politics”. But “doing the job”, as Starmer illustrated, was not working. The average family is going to have to pay an extra £2,900 on their mortgage, Starmer said, after Sunak refused to answer how much the crisis would cost.

[See also: Why Labour is getting its political messaging right]

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The PM stuck to his usual tactic of criticising Labour policies. He accused Labour of wanting to borrow £28bn a year – a pledge that has since been diluted – and giving in to unions with “unaffordable pay demands”, which was a bold argument given recent figures showing the UK’s persistent lack of wage growth.

Starmer threw in a few good quips. He made both benches chuckle when he referenced the Prime Minister’s “keen interest” in the Californian mortgage market and the helicopter he uses to get to engagements. These digs exploit a small but significant chink in the Prime Minister’s armour: as the economic picture worsens, Sunak’s personal wealth becomes more and more significant to voters.

Sunak’s biggest mistake was his reaction to Starmer’s case study: James, from Selby, North Yorkshire, for whom the “Tory mortgage penalty” will cost his family £400 a month. “Why should James and his family pay the cost of the Prime Minister’s failure?” asked Starmer. With little to respond with, Sunak retorted emptily: “I hope when [he] was talking to James, he explained that his economic policies would make his situation worse.” Starmer’s said pointedly that James and his family would have been listening to the Prime Minister’s weak answer.

This week showed Rishi Sunak at his worst: on the back foot, rattled and unable to focus on the issue at hand. His performance gave us an inkling of how this might all end for Conservatives. Not with a whimper, but a mortgage-sized bang.

[See also: Pledge tracker: Is Rishi Sunak regretting his promises?]

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