The Prime Minister’s week is getting worse. His decision to place a £1,000 bet with Piers Morgan that flights carrying asylum seekers to Rwanda will take off before the election has exposed him on two fronts. It makes him seem pitiless for gambling on the lives of those in peril. It also makes him look like a man for whom £1,000 is small change. He probably thought refusing to take the bet would make him look uptight and unsure about his policy. But he didn’t think through the alternative.
It was no surprise then that Keir Starmer began today’s PMQs with an inevitable jibe over the Prime Minister’s new gambling habit. “A year ago, the Prime Minister promised to bring NHS waiting lists down – isn’t he glad he didn’t bet a grand on it?” the Labour leader poked. At least I stand by my commitments, Rishi Sunak replied. “He’s so indecisive the only bet he’d make is an each-way bet.”
The jovial point-scoring did not last long. Then, Sunak made another tactless decision. To prove that Starmer lacked conviction, the PM began listing the promises that the Labour leader had broken: pensions, planning, peerages, “defining a woman! Although in fairness that was only 99 per cent of a U-turn,” Sunak said. The atmosphere plummeted. Esther Ghey – mother of the murdered transgender teenager Brianna Ghey – was due to be watching from the public gallery above their heads. Starmer, who was visibly angry, paused before standing to the despatch box and said: “Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber – shame.”
Although asked to apologise by the Labour MP Liz Twist, Sunak’s only response to the outrage within the chamber was to repeat that the murder was a dreadful event. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson refused to apologise afterwards. If No 10 does end up saying sorry, it will have to explain why the joke is only unacceptable when a person such as Ghey is in the chamber and fine the rest of the time.
Expect this issue to consume the political narrative for some time yet. Back in the chamber, Starmer ploughed on. After some unproductive back-and-forth about tax rises and the reasons dentistry is so poor in this country, he arrived at an illuminating point about the Prime Minister’s difficulty with reading the room. The Labour leader said: “Last week [the Prime Minister] and his MPs were laughing at someone whose mortgage had gone up £1,000 a month. This week he’s casually made a £1,000 bet in the middle of an interview. Last week he thought even raising questions about the cost of living was, and I quote, resorting to the ‘politics of envy’… [does he] understand why his own MPs are saying he simply does not get what Britain needs?” This is the type of question that could resonate with voters during the election campaign if the Prime Minister continues to misjudge the balance between political jousting and exhibiting normal levels of sympathy.
Nonetheless, this was not the most revealing moment of the show (and it is a show). That came before the exchange between Starmer and Sunak, when Fleur Anderson, the Labour MP for Putney, asked the PM whether he agreed with his Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, that the UK could recognise a Palestinian state as part of “irreversible” progress towards a two-state solution. Sunak did not leap to the defence of his Foreign Secretary. He did not even mention him by name. He simply said: “Our long-standing position has been that we will recognise a Palestinian state at a time that is most conducive to the peace process.” It was not a defence of Cameron that will resoundingly put to bed the rumours of a gap between the two politicians.
The Foreign Secretary has supposedly been given permission to take the lead on foreign policy. With that power he has made the government more critical of Israel and more receptive of Palestinian demands. But he seems to have gone too far for No 10’s liking. This looks like an attempt to rein him in. But will this work?
[See also: Who runs Labour?]