Everyone knew what the main topics were going to be at today’s PMQs. The only question was whether Keir Starmer would lead on last week’s net migration figures, which showed numbers reached a record 745,000 in 2022, or Rishi Sunak’s decision to snub the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, over the return of the Parthenon marbles.
The Labour leader chose both. In a fiery PMQs session peppered with even more vicious jokes than usual, Starmer kicked off his first question about immigration numbers by alluding to the marbles row, accusing Sunak of spending “this week arguing about an ancient relic of little interest to the public – but that’s enough about the Tory party!”
The rest of his questions aimed to draw a line between the two: holding up Sunak’s decision to cancel the meeting with Mitsotakis as evidence that he was not serious about tackling problems by working with foreign leaders. “Never mind the British Museum. It’s the Prime Minister who has lost his marbles,” Starmer declared – a predictable jab, but one met with roars from the Labour benches.
Sunak was aware the assault was coming. His first tactic was to repeat his defence that it was the Greek leader who was at fault, by raising the marbles in the first place. “It may seem alien to him, but my view is when people make commitments, they should keep them,” he declared, not quite managing to avoid sounding petulant.
But as Starmer continued to needle him, Sunak snapped. In an astonishing over-reaction, he sought to portray the Labour leader’s own meeting with Mitsotakis, in which the pair discussed a number of significant geopolitical issues including immigration and security, as a betrayal of British interests.
“No one will be surprised that he’s backing an EU country over Britain,” Sunak bellowed, accusing Starmer of having “showed his true colours” last week by selecting Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as the piece of music that he feels best sums up the Labour Party. (The piece was adopted by the EU as its anthem in the 1980s – Starmer said it reminded him of the fall of the Berlin Wall.) “He will back Brussels over Britain every single time,” Sunak repeated.
Conservative attempts to rehash the Brexit wars and paint Labour as the party of Remain are nothing new – variations of this attack have featured frequently at PMQs since 2016, under multiple Tory prime ministers. But to brand a mere meeting with the Greek prime minister as “backing an EU country over Britain” looks bizarre. It is all the more confusing as Sunak has for the past year sought to portray himself as a “grown-up” Prime Minister who, after the counterproductive hostility and childish mud-slinging of the Boris Johnson era, understands the need to work with the EU on areas of mutual interest and to be respectful towards other leaders.
Indeed, he has even enjoyed some success with the approach of no longer treating Europe as the enemy: the Windsor Framework agreed in February as a solution to the seemingly intractable challenge of the Irish border was only possible due to thawed relations with the EU. Bringing back David Cameron as Foreign Secretary was similarly symbolic of a more mature, less antagonistic relationship with the EU – last week Cameron said the UK should be “a friend, a neighbour and the best possible partner” to the EU.
Today Sunak appeared to throw away that progress to make a jibe at Starmer – and a jibe that failed to land. Clearly rattled by the way divisions over the Parthenon marbles have played out and the increasing pressure within the Tory party over migration, he succumbed to the temptation to abandon the high ground.
And that pressure was evident today. While Labour MPs were laughing and cheering their leader, the mood on the Conservative benches was considerably more subdued, with more than a few stony faces visible behind the Prime Minister, especially when Starmer gleefully pointed out that net migration has trebled under Tory governments. The diplomatic embarrassment of the cancelled Mitsotakis meeting will soon blow over; the fury and despair among Tories over immigration numbers will not. Support for Sunak is waning – he barely got a flicker of recognition by mentioning the tax cuts announced in last week’s Autumn Statement. When Starmer declared that “his own side don’t have any faith in him”, it was hard to disagree.
[See also: Why ministers like Michael Gove are so rare]