There was a bounce to Rishi Sunak’s demeanour as he stepped up for the final PMQs of the year. The Rwanda bill, on which he has staked his premiership, cleared its first hurdle in the Commons last night, with the much-feared rebellion from the Tory right ending with not a single MP voting against. The real fight, of course, will come in the new year when the details of the bill are thrashed out and Sunak is pressured to fulfil promises he made to toughen it up. And one could argue that it was a significant error of judgement for the Prime Minister to allow the issue of Rwanda to become so prominent in the first place. But today Sunak enjoyed a brief moment of relief.
Keir Starmer did not seem able to decide what he wanted to achieve with this pre-Christmas PMQs. He began on a sombre note, marking the tragic death of one of the asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm barge, then paying tribute to Mark Drakeford, who had stood down as Welsh Labour leader shortly before.
With an awkward pivot, he then tried to inject some festive spirit into proceedings, asking “Christmas is a time of peace on earth and goodwill for all. Has anybody told the Tory party?” Sunak’s response was equally awkward. “Christmas is also a time for families and under the Conservatives we do have a record number of them,” he bellowed – a reference to the supposed “five families” on the Tory right. (Politicos across Westminster should make it their New Year’s resolution to never mention that mafioso phrase again.)
There were further elements more appropriate for an amateur Christmas panto than the House of Commons. Starmer attempted some audience participation, inviting Conservative MPs who have criticised Sunak in the last week to put their hands up. It fell flat – in fact, being targeted by the leader of the opposition seemed to unite the Tory benches, who jeered and laughed at Starmer so much the Speaker had to intervene, stepping on his lines and disrupting his rhythm.
While he’s had a few strong performances lately, Starmer has never been a natural at stand-up comedy. He perhaps realised this, switching back to seriousness with a jolt and raising the issue of homelessness this winter with a heartrending letter from a boy whose family were forced out of their home. Sunak’s response was a tone-deaf and off-topic jibe about Labour’s policy on housebuilding – but in the wake of all the Christmas shenanigans, he got away with it. Neither man was able to land a proper blow, and both appeared eager to rush through proceedings as quickly as possible.
In his final answer to Starmer, Sunak seemed to realise this session was his last chance this year to make the case to the Commons for why he’s Prime Minister in the first place. He gabbled through a list of his supposed accomplishments – tax cuts, boosting the national living wage, recruiting more nurses and police officers, cutting the cost of net zero, reducing small boat crossings and halving inflation.
If he expected a (metaphorical) round of applause, it didn’t come – Conservative minds were elsewhere: on the polls, and on the battle the government faces when parliament returns in January. Tory MPs are neither more united nor happier about their leader today than they were last week. For the most part they are not impressed by what he’s achieved or optimistic about their prospects as we head into an election year. It will take more than a strong PMQs session to save him – and today’s performance wasn’t strong. But it wasn’t a complete disaster, and after the last few weeks, Sunak probably thinks that counts as a win.