PMQs is always more of a chance for the main party leaders to show off and hone their attack lines than it is a genuine attempt at extracting information from the prime minister. However, in deference to the name, some semblance of the question-and-answer format usually remains.
Not today. Smarting from the vicious (if solo) assault of the former cabinet minister Simon Clarke, who last night demanded his resignation in a Telegraph column, Rishi Sunak knew he had to come out fighting (if only to show his increasingly disgruntled MPs that he still has some fight left in him).
Keir Starmer’s job was even easier than usual. His challenge was deciding which of the many danger zones for the government he wanted to draw Sunak into. The big topic he chose was the chaotic state of the government’s pledge to expand free childcare provision from April – a flagship Tory scheme announced with gusto last year that appears increasingly perilous as nurseries say they have been left in the dark by the government.
But all the other the hits you’d expect were there too: the excruciating clip of Sunak laughing at being berated by a former healthcare worker about the state of the NHS, the PR gimmick-gone-wrong that saw the Prime Minister record what looked like a personalised message to Nigel Farage, the cost-of-living crisis, and of course the ongoing Tory civil war.
Those are all tough topics for an under-fire PM to respond to. So Sunak didn’t even try. Instead, he headed straight for the culture-war front.
His first answer – to a question hinged on Clarke’s accusation last night that Sunak “doesn’t get” what the British people want – showed his intent. Starmer, he said, had taken the knee (a reference to support for Black Lives Matter), wanted to abolish the monarchy, and doesn’t know what a woman is. None of these charges are particularly relevant to key voter priorities (that would be the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS), but as poll after poll deepens the sense of despair among Conservatives, expect a dramatic pivot to the culture wars. In other words, you’ll be hearing those lines a lot in the next ten months (assuming the election is in November), even if the discussion at hand is meant to be about something altogether different.
The other line you’ll be hearing from the Tories is the risk of going “back to square one”. Sunak used the phrase three times in his answers to the Labour leader today, and at least once more in the following questions. As has been discussed at length, the “Let us finish the job” narrative can be effective for an incumbent party heading into an election, but it is unlikely to work here, namely because for much of the electorate it just doesn’t feel like the Conservatives are on the right track. In fact, the idea of going back to square one with Labour probably sounds quite appealing to voters. Nonetheless, it’s the message Sunak has decided on (after multiple U-turns), and he seems determined to shoehorn it into virtually everything he says.
Sunak also remains determined to paint Starmer as a flip-flopper, a “human weathervane” as he put it, inextricably tied to Labour’s last leader Jeremy Corbyn. Sunak may come to regret that attack today, however. It gave Starmer the chance to use his killer line: “I’ve changed my party, he’s being bullied by his.”
That prompted scowls on the faces of Tory MPs sitting behind Sunak. Most of them do not back Clarke’s call for yet another change of leader. Only 11 Tory rebels voted against the Rwanda bill last week and the number who have publicly submitted letters of no confidence at just two. But that doesn’t mean they’re happy.
And a former minister furiously calling for the Prime Minister to go does nothing to help a party in crisis. Sunak remains nominally in charge but few feel he is genuinely in control of the party. And at today’s PMQs, you could see it.