Rishi Sunak marked exactly one year as Prime Minister when he rose to take questions at the despatch box today (25 October). Any party the beleaguered premier might have planned was abruptly cancelled, however, as Keir Starmer welcomed two new Labour MPs, winners of the recent by-elections in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, to the opposition benches.
The Labour leader also took a dig at the Liberal Democrats when he introduced Alistair Strathern, Labour’s winning candidate in Mid Bedfordshire. “He defied the odds, history and, of course, the fantasy of Lib Dem bar charts.”
But it was claims about the defeated Conservative Tamworth candidate, Andrew Cooper, which supplied Starmer with his first question in a session dominated not by the Israel-Hamas conflict but by the cost-of-living crisis. A flowchart Cooper shared on Facebook in 2020, which suggested there were scenarios in which a mother who could not feed her children should be told to “f*** off”, was put to Sunak.
The PM tried to respond with some humour as he suggested that Strathern may be more supportive of him than “the last one”, referring of course to Boris Johnson’s staunchest ally Nadine Dorries. Sunak also insisted the government was providing support to “the most vulnerable”.
Both men then fought on familiar territory as Starmer tried to force Sunak to distance himself from Cooper’s “appalling comments”, while the PM took pot-shots at Labour’s “reckless plans” to borrow £28bn to fund climate investment.
Starmer accused Sunak of “being completely oblivious” as mortgage rates surged and as he refused to outlaw no-fault evictions. The PM refused to accept the Tories had crashed the economy and claimed higher interest rates were a global challenge – a line not likely to go down well on the doorstep at a general election.
The Middle East conflict was not raised by either leader in their exchanges with each other. The SNP’s deputy leader, Mhairi Black, was the first to mention it, urging a “humanitarian ceasefire”. This was followed up by Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi who spoke to the Commons about the experience of one of her Palestinian constituents.
Sunak said that Israel had suffered a “shockingly brutal attack” at the hands of the terror group Hamas and has a right to defend itself, before caveating this by speaking of “specific pauses”. This mirrors caution from other world leaders, such as Joe Biden, who has called on the Israel government to delay its planned ground invasion of Gaza.
Sunak added: “From the start we’ve also said that we do want British nationals to be able to leave Gaza, and we want for hostages to be released and for humanitarian aid to get in.
“We recognise for all of that to happen there has to be a safer environment which of course necessitates specific pauses as distinct from a ceasefire.”
This new position on the issue for the PM was the biggest news line from PMQs, and perhaps paves the way for Starmer to join calls for a temporary pause in hostilities.