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6 December 2023

PMQs today: Keir Starmer skewers Rishi Sunak over Rwanda

The Labour leader has devised a potent line of attack on the government’s flagship asylum plan.

By Freddie Hayward

The real show in Westminster today for the Press Gallery’s sketch writers was Boris Johnson’s appearance in front of the Covid Inquiry. But they would have found much to write about at PMQs. It was one of the most unserious and jovial sessions I’ve attended. 

The atmosphere in the chamber was festive, as if the end of the school term was round the corner. Brendan Clarke-Smith, the honourable Conservative member for Bassetlaw, donned a Christmas jumper. The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, has been cut down by Covid and his deputy takes a more lackadaisical approach to crowd management within the chamber. This resulted in a greater degree of mooing from the Conservative benches than is usual at PMQs. 

The chaos started with a question from Michael Fabricant about Starmer’s recent comments on Margaret Thatcher. “Does the Prime Minister share my boundless joy that on the road to Damascus, and in recognition of her great heritage, and all that she achieved, another fanboy has joined her great beliefs – the leader of the opposition!”

[See also: The Tories are lucky to be rid of Boris Johnson]

The jokes were not confined to the backbenches. In the seven days since his ignominious defeat at last week’s PMQs, Rishi Sunak seems to have spent more time writing jokes than delivering policy. At one point, Sunak and Keir Starmer went back and forth making jibes about their respective football teams for what felt like several minutes. When the Labour leader made yet another reference to unparliamentary language from the Home Secretary, James Cleverly threw his head back in mock laughter. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom joined in, which the Labour leader found equally amusing. As such, it was hard to discern much that was of political significance during the exchange. But there were some nuggets beneath the laughter.

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Starmer used his six questions to try to skewer the government over its new treaty with Rwanda. “Apart from members of his own cabinet, how many people has the Prime Minister sent to Rwanda?”, Starmer began. Sunak replied that the purpose of the scheme is not to send thousands of people to Rwanda but to deter asylum seekers coming here in the first place. But that, Starmer moved on to say, is not going to happen when the “number of people sent there remains stubbornly consistent: zero”. That is true: and Starmer can keep up this line of attack until flights start taking off, which seems unlikely before the next election.

What’s more, Starmer said, waving the document in his right hand, the treaty with Rwanda means they can send refugees to the UK. On top of that, the British government would have to pay for the asylum seekers’ accommodation for up to five years. Or in his words: “they’ve gone from up ‘yours Delors’ to ‘take our money Kagame’!” It’s a good slogan and, as Johnson’s return to the political scene reminds us, a funny joke or a witty slogan is often as important as anything else in politics. 

And to think the government could have spent this week boasting about England leapfrogging other countries in the education league tables.

[See also: Kate Forbes: The rooted nomad]

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