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13 September 2023

PMQs today: Starmer rattles Sunak as he brands him “inaction man”

The Prime Minister’s attack on Starmer over his links to Jeremy Corbyn seemed desperate.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It may feel as though parliament has barely returned from its summer break, but there is another recess on the horizon. Ahead of party conference season, both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were keen to make this PMQs count. The House was fuller than usual, and MPs were particularly enthusiastic for their respective leaders.

The themes Starmer chose to go for were, predictably, ones that have made the headlines in recent weeks: “probation, prisons, schools, China,” he reeled off, listing government failings. They are tied together by the sense that this government is losing control, that it has no way to deal with the multiple crises facing Britain as a result of austerity-era spending cuts, and that it is led by a Prime Minister who is out of ideas and, by trying to insist everything is going fine, shows he just doesn’t understand how bad things have become.

“Why does the Prime Minister keep ignoring the warnings until it’s too late?” Starmer asked, drawing a connection between conditions in our prisons and wider “mayhem” in the criminal justice system. He cited the emotive words of Zara Aleena’s family, that ministers had “blood on their hands” due to the failures in the probation service that allowed her murderer freedom he shouldn’t have had. Sunak seemed rattled, responding with a list of recent government spending commitments and retorting – as he so often does – that prisoner escapes were higher under the last Labour government. Given it is more than 13 years since Labour was last in power, the blow failed to land.

On China, too, Starmer went hard on the government’s lack of a clear strategy and accused Sunak of playing “catch-up”. China is a tricky subject for the PM, who faces intense pressure from factions within his own party to take a tougher line, especially following the remarkable reports of spying.

Rather than engage with the topic, Sunak first asked what Starmer would do differently (a valid question, since Labour is not significantly more hawkish on China than the Conservatives). Then he once again tried to pivot to the Labour leader’s presence on Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench. “If he wants to talk about foreign policy he should perhaps reflect on his own record, because this is the man who said he was 100 per cent behind the former Labour leader, a person who wanted to abolish the army, scrap Trident and withdraw from Nato,” Sunak said. “It’s clear what he did: he put his own political interests ahead of Britain’s.”

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The problem with this line of attack is that it’s old. It has been more than three years since Starmer replaced Corbyn as leader, and the Labour Party under him could not look more different. Trying to tar Starmer with the Corbyn brush was moderately effective at best when Boris Johnson did it with all the rhetorical panache the former PM is known for; in Sunak’s earnest, school-prefect tone the accusation just looks petulant and desperate.

Starmer’s overarching strategy was to paint Sunak as “inaction man” (a term you can expect to hear much more of at Labour conference in Liverpool next month, and in the looming election campaign), and to remind MPs that “no one voted for this shambles – and no one voted for him”. His last question demanded “when will he give people a vote?” – the closest to an explicit call for an election we have heard. Sunak muttered something about Labour and trade unions and tried (somewhat bizarrely) to change the subject to Britain’s deal with the EU Horizon project. No matter: the issue had been raised. Labour is now firmly on election footing, and the Tories had better be ready.

[See also: Labour still needs the unions]

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