PMQs: Sunak misrepresents himself as a return to ‘grown-up politics’

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Just a week after Liz Truss uttered the now infamous phrase “I am a fighter and not a quitter”, Keir Starmer faced off against a different opponent at Prime Minister’s Questions. Rishi Sunak represents a new challenge for the Labour leader – far slicker and more confident than Truss, aided by the enthusiastic support of his backbenches. Few of Sunak’s answers today were particularly interesting or original. In fact, he reused many of Boris Johnson’s favourite lines, including Starmer’s support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his opposition to Brexit. But the new Prime Minister gave the kind of performance that will have convinced the ‘safe-pair-of-hands’ brigade that he was the right choice as the new Tory leader.

Keir Starmer began his line of questioning strongly, pointing out the hypocrisy of Sunak’s decision to reappoint Suella Braverman as Home Secretary after promising in his first speech as Prime Minister to deliver “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at all levels of government. Sunak told MPs that Braverman – who resigned over a data breach just a week ago –  had “made an error of judgement”, adding: “She recognised that. She raised the matter, and she accepted her mistake.” When pressed by Starmer on whether officials had raised concerns about Braverman’s reappointment, the Prime Minister dodged the question, claiming that he had “just addressed” the issue. “We can all see what’s happened here,” Starmer responded. “He’s so weak, he’s done a grubby deal, trading national security because he was scared to lose another leadership election.”

Starmer then turned to the subject of non-domicile status – the controversial tax-saving arrangement from which Sunak’s wife previously benefitted. Labour has committed to abolishing non-dom status, in a move estimated to save the Treasury £3.2bn per year. The Labour leader demanded of Sunak: “Why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is and get rid of it?” The Prime Minister entirely ignored the question – instead just repeating the line that there are “difficult decisions” ahead to restore economic stability and confidence.

Starmer replied that Sunak “pretends he’s on the side of working people, but in private, he says something very different”, highlighting a clip that surfaced during the leadership election over the summer that showed Sunak telling Tory members that he had diverted money away from “deprived urban areas” into places like theirs. Sunak’s response – that there are “deprived areas” in “our rural communities, in our coastal communities and across the South” – was met with cheers from the Tory benches, suggesting many of them have forgotten which party has been in power for the last 12 years. In what was probably his strongest contribution, the Prime Minister then criticised Starmer for the pledges the Labour leader made during his own leadership contest, declaring: “I told the truth for the good of the country. He told his party what it wanted to hear. Leadership is not selling fairytales.”

Starmer’s choice of questions was good and kept Sunak on his toes. But the Prime Minister never looked rattled, batting away much of the Labour leader’s scrutiny. Sunak leant into commentary that his appointment means a return to ‘grown-up’ politics – which is an easy picture to paint when compared to Truss and her Covid-partying predecessor. Sunak is looking to rehabilitate the Tory Party’s image after a period of chaos. His slick delivery today shows he could pose problems for Labour as the opposition tries to prevent the new Prime Minister from absolving himself of responsibility for his party’s failings.

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