The atmosphere in the Chamber for PMQs today was angry, bitter and weary. The general election is nearing and jobs are on the line. Proceedings began with the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, calling for members to reduce the amount of hectoring across the aisle and for speakers to refrain from using props. The big development this week – that the paralysis which has gripped Northern Ireland’s government for the past two years could be ending – was relegated to a brief acknowledgement by the Prime Minister and Keir Starmer.
There’s a general election coming, remember? The restoration of the Stormont executive won’t swing the result for either side. Instead, the Labour leader used his six questions to prosecute the government over what will: the cost-of-living crisis.
Earlier this week Starmer had been handed a gift from the former Conservative minister, George Freeman (who I interviewed here). He’d said he could not afford to pay his £2,000-a-month mortgage on a ministerial salary of £118,300. The goal opened up for Starmer: if someone on more than three times the average salary (£35,000) could not afford to remain in their job under this Tory government, then how could a normal person? “Have we finally discovered what they meant when they said we’re all in this together?” Starmer said, chalking up some deserved laughs. (That’s a reference to George Osborne’s claim that the burden of austerity was shouldered by everyone.)
Sunak’s response that the government had brought in a mortgage charter seemed to miss the point. The best tactic was probably to fight humour with humour. But that was beyond reach. Starmer moved on to the charge that the Tories crashed the economy. This will be an important theme of the forthcoming election and is something Labour will have to drive home if it wants voters to blame the Tories when the situation doesn’t immediately improve a year into a Labour government.
Sunak was also trying to reinforce some attack lines, namely that Labour’s £28bn plan for green investment will lead to higher taxes. “The thing that will have the biggest impact on everyone’s cost of living is his idea to spend £28bn,” said the Prime Minister. He went on: “The Right Honourable Member for Doncaster North [that’s Ed Miliband] has carved a promise in stone and everyone else just looks away in embarrassment.” That exchange will only make the need to come to a decision on whether to ditch the £28bn seem more urgent for Labour’s leadership.
At this point, the Speaker got to his feet to chastise the Conservative chief whip for getting excitable. Each week Hoyle threatens to eject rowdy members with the refrain “would you like to get a cup of tea?” But his threat is empty. He never does. Hence the noise.
Over the hubbub, Starmer lobbied the Prime Minister on behalf of someone who wasn’t George Freeman. Meet Phil who works in Warrington’s Iceland branch. His mortgage payments are going up by £1,000 a month. But Sunak was not going to be lectured on Phil’s personal finances. “Thanks to this government Phil and millions of other workers not just in Iceland, but across the country are benefiting this month in their pay packet from a tax cut worth hundreds of pounds.” Sunak continued: did Starmer explain to Phil how he would pay for his £28bn in green investment?
When Starmer accused Sunak of raising taxes 26 times and being “so out of touch it’s unbelievable”, the Prime Minister riposted that he was pursuing a “politics of envy”. It is probably not a good idea to accuse people of being envious in the context of a debate on the cost-of-living crisis. But this fitted the atmosphere in the chamber. To wrap up, Starmer asked the PM to do the exhausted Freeman a favour and call an election.
On that note, it is worth marking the improvement to Starmer’s performance at PMQs. Gone is the strained, nasal grimace and the crass pop-culture references. In with some decent jokes and message discipline. This probably doesn’t matter that much. Few people watch PMQs. But with the nation’s political press gathered in the gallery and his parliamentary party behind him, a strong performance can shape the narrative around Starmer. It can prop up party unity and give pause to those commentators who call him “weak” or “boring”. At least until next week.
[See also: The Conservative paradox]