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21 February 2024

PMQs review: the Tories can’t escape the Post Office scandal

Rishi Sunak refuses to back Kemi Badenoch in her public spat with the former Post Office head.

By Rachel Cunliffe

PMQs is often the point of high drama in the parliamentary week. Not today. Having returned from one of the most politically eventful “recess” weeks in recent times, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both appeared to have their minds on other things.

Starmer chose to use five of his six questions to look into the latest developments of the Post Office Horizon scandal, pressing Sunak on whether he stands by his Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch in her feud with the former Post Office chair Henry Staunton. Would the Prime Minister, Starmer asked, repeat Badenoch’s incendiary claim that Staunton had been “lying” in an interview he gave to the Sunday Times about being asked by the government to stall compensating the subpostmaster victims?

Sunak did not quite throw Badenoch under the metaphorical bus, but he emphatically didn’t back her either. Instead, he dodged the question and turned to the government’s continuing work on the compensation scheme.

That response was notable for being so non-committal. It is unclear why Badenoch has chosen to insert herself so dramatically into the row, doubling down on her furious tweet thread with a statement in the Commons on Monday. It’s a high-risk strategy for her: if evidence emerges that her version of events wasn’t the full picture – and, with Staunton having released the notes he took at the time, that’s a very real possibility – serious questions will be raised about her integrity. Indeed, she could face accusations of misleading the House. Not a good look for the front-runner to be the next Tory leader.

It’s also not helpful for Sunak to have his government dragged into the Post Office scandal, especially considering all the other problems he faces. Behind closed doors, Tory MPs mutter that Badenoch’s hot-headedness could be a liability, depending on what evidence emerges. But publicly denouncing one of his key ministers wasn’t an option for Sunak either – not when the party is already so divided.

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So the PM awkwardly sidestepped the trap Starmer tried to lay for him – unable to bat the attack away or land any blows of his own, but doing just enough to avoid the row getting any worse, at least during this PMQs session. He did not repeat Badenoch’s claims, and devolved responsibility for the comments to her. This is clearly a battle the Business Secretary needs to fight on her own.

The other takeaway from today’s session was that neither Sunak nor Starmer were really focused on their weekly back-and-forth feuding. Both have bigger problems. Sunak is still smarting from last week’s disastrous by-election defeats (he got a reminder when Starmer began by welcoming the two new Labour MPs), and the prospect of yet another, in Blackpool South, now the Tory MP Scott Benton has lost his appeal against suspension following a lobbying scandal.

Starmer, meanwhile, is looking ahead to this afternoon, when his authority over Labour will be tested by the SNP’s motion on a ceasefire in Gaza. Hopes that he could avoid a showdown with his MPs by offering a Labour amendment have been all but dashed by Tory gamesmanship with the order paper. While the vote will have no bearing whatsoever on the decision-making process of either the Israeli government or Hamas, a major Labour rebellion could cause serious headaches for Starmer, especially with the Rochdale by-election taking place a week tomorrow. This is a major test of his party management, and both the Conservatives and the SNP are trying to make it as difficult as possible.

Little wonder he decided to take a week off berating Sunak for his fractured party, and stuck to the technicalities of the Post Office scandal and trying to trip up Badenoch.

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