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PMQs: Sunak was missing, but was hardly missed

The Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden did his best to copy the PM’s “blame Labour” routine.

By Zoë Grünewald

Housing was back on the agenda at Prime Minister’s Questions today. The two deputies Angela Rayner and Oliver Dowden stood at the despatch box while their bosses attended a Westminster Abbey service to mark the 75th anniversary of the NHS.

Sunak has the lowest PMQs attendance record of any prime minister since 1979, missing one in five sessions. Sunak will also be absent next week because of a Nato summit. Before completing his first nine months in office, the Prime Minister will have missed as many sessions as Boris Johnson missed in his three-year premiership. Perhaps this wouldn’t matter so much if the country wasn’t facing crises is so many sectors. Or, indeed, if his deputy had anything useful to say.

Dowden took a leaf out of Sunak’s “when in doubt, blame Labour” book. Avoidance, attack and wistful longing for the poll ratings of Johnson have become the Conservative modus operandi for PMQs: Dowden did not directly answer a single question of Rayner’s. It was as if Sunak was in the room.

In what Tory backbenchers may probably view as a nasty habit Labour again targeted housing, a delicate subject for the Prime Minister. The Conservatives once proudly boasted being the party of home ownership, but are now regularly at war over whether housing targets should even exist, and they are being blamed for Britons’ spiralling mortgage costs. Where Starmer had held Sunak’s feet to the fire for the squeezed middle and rocketing mortgage repayments, Rayner pinned Dowden down on behalf of those unable to access the housing ladder at all.

Dowden was asked if the Tories were still the party of home ownership. He cited the International Monetary Fund’s endorsement of the government’s method to bring down inflation, and attacked Labour’s pledge to spend £28bn on green technology. When Rayner enquired about buy-to-let mortgages and banning no-fault evictions, Dowden obfuscated, crowbarring in one of Sunak’s five pledges to grow the economy. Then he led the Commons down a nonsensical segue into Labour reshuffle rumours, despite the possibility of Sunak doing the same.

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Dowden’s retorts do not stand up to scrutiny. He quipped that the UK is the “fastest-growing economy in the G7”, ignoring how the UK is the only country in the G7 that still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. When Rayner brought up Jessica, a mother of four from Plymouth who is forced to share cramped housing, Dowden responded with an seven-year-old policy, the national living wage, and bragged about cutting taxes, despite his party having presided over the highest tax burden in the postwar years. The Deputy PM’s final point, that the Tories had lifted a million people out of unemployment, jars when working people can barely afford the basics.

Rayner held Dowden to account in her straight-talking way, and her questions were sharper than usual. She dubbed his answers “pathetic” and called Dowden out when he talked around the answer. “I can’t see us getting through a single one of these encounters without the Deputy Prime Minister blaming the opposition for his government,” she declared.

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This was emblematic of just how mismatched their energies felt today. Dowden performed like an over-enthusiastic, over-prepared substitute teacher, whereas Rayner was dry and sarcastic. Though the two engaged in a couple of jabs, Dowden’s attacks felt more personal. When Rayner pointed out that this was the first of two PMQs in a row that her and Dowden would be facing off at, she joked: “They really have given up.” Dowden replied: “It may come as a surprise to her, but some leaders trust their deputies to stand in for them.” A dig that, due to Rayner’s very presence on the front bench as Starmer’s deputy, fell rather flat.

Perhaps the best line this week came from the SNP’s deputy Westminster leader Mhairi Black, who announced this week she would be standing down at the next election. When Dowden paid tribute to her service, she shot back: “We did join this place at the same time, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be leaving at the same time.”

[See also: The New Conservatives will damage Rishi Sunak]

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