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28 February 2024

PMQs review: Liz Truss’s ghost is still haunting Rishi Sunak

The former PM’s comments proved a gift to Keir Starmer as he declared that the Tories had become the “political wing of the flat Earth society”.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The word “febrile” gets tossed around a lot in parliament but there really isn’t another way to describe the mood in the chamber at today’s PMQs.

Nor was it just the party leaders who had turned up spoiling for a fight. MPs on both sides of the House were barely attempting to rein in their brays and boos from the backbenches. After last week’s chaotic scenes, there was a notable absence of calls of “order order” from the Speaker’s chair, making it at times almost impossible to hear what insults and accusations Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak were actually hurling at each other.

Their lines of attack, though, were revealing. After weeks of PMQs-by-numbers, with Starmer focusing on divisions within the Conservative Party and the sense that Sunak “just doesn’t get it”, today the Labour leader came armed with fresh ammunition: Liz Truss.

He gleefully cited comments made by Truss about the “deep state” and her silence as the right-wing thug Tommy Robinson was praised at the Conservative Political Action Committee in the US last week, branding the Tories the “political wing of the flat Earth society”. When Conservative MPs groaned, Starmer quipped: “They made her prime minister, now they can’t bear talking about her.” Why, Starmer wanted to know, was the Prime Minister allowing Truss to stand as a Tory candidate?

Sunak had his comeback ready – and it was an aggressive (if predictable) one. “If he wants to talk about former leaders and predecessors, then the whole country knows his record,” the PM responded.

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Sunak regularly cites Starmer’s support of Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs, but usually when he does so it is a complete non-sequitur, a sign that he has no other answer for whatever topic he is being grilled on. Today, though, with Starmer honing in on Truss, Sunak had a point. And the roars from the benches behind him suggest the divided Tory party can at least come together on this.

Why did Starmer choose to open himself up to this attack by bringing up Truss? The answer, quite simply, is that the former PM remains a huge liability for the Conservatives. Sixteen months after she left office in disgrace, Truss currently has a net favourability rating of minus 60. The public blame her not just for the sudden spike in mortgage rates during her premiership but for the fact that rates remain more than double their pre-2022 level (despite the global trend of higher rates). Her embrace of US conservatives including Donald Trump and her promotion of “deep state” conspiracy theories has made her seem even more out of touch with British voters than the launch of her “Popular Conservatism” movement earlier this month.

While Corbyn remains a painful topic for Labour, particularly as tensions over Israel-Palestine continue to rise, this is nothing compared to the internal crisis the Conservatives are being forced to have over Truss.

Undaunted by the ghost of Corbyn, Starmer invoked a second figure who has the potential to tear the Conservative Party apart: Nigel Farage. Was there potential, he asked, for the GB News presenter and Reform figurehead to be welcomed back into the Tory fold?


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Again, Sunak had an answer prepared, citing his party’s achievements on diversity: the first Jewish prime minister, the first female prime minister, the first black chancellor, the first Muslim home secretary and, now, the first Asian prime minister.

It’s a powerful record (and one which Labour might want to reflect on) but it meant walking into Starmer’s trap. The Labour leader now had a chance to declare that the Tory party would be willing to welcome Farage. Expect to hear shadow ministers run with that line of attack in the coming weeks.

Sunak got a blow of his own in, reminding everyone of the three former (but now suspended) Labour MPs standing in the Rochdale by-election and declaring: “We expel anti-Semites, he makes them Labour candidates”, prompting more cheers behind him. But in the wake of Lee Anderson’s suspension from the Conservatives over his Islamophobic remarks, neither leader could really claim the moral high ground here. Westminster politics is getting dirty.

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