PMQs: Missteps from Sunak leave him on the back foot against Starmer

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

During today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Keir Starmer took advantage of the sudden obsession with Labour’s long-standing plans to end the charitable status of private schools. The Labour leader told MPs that Winchester College – an elite public school – has a rowing club, a rifle club and an “extensive” art collection and charges its students £45,000 a year in fees. He demanded to know why the Prime Minister chose to “hand them nearly £6m of taxpayers’ money this year” (as a result of the school’s exemption from paying the majority of its tax bill).

Many readers may remember that Sunak himself attended Winchester College and recall the outcry earlier this year when it was revealed that the then Chancellor and his wife had donated more than £100,000 to the school. Sunak responded to Starmer’s scrutiny of his alma mater today by declaring: “Whenever he attacks me about where I want to school, he is attacking the hard-working aspiration of millions of people in this country.” But, in his two questions focused on Winchester, the Labour leader did not mention the fact that Sunak had attended the school, nor did he reach for the low-hanging fruit of the Prime Minister’s sizeable donation. Sunak volunteered this fact about his upbringing, which sets him apart from the vast majority of the British public, entirely voluntarily, suggesting he is more sensitive about this subject than his comments today would imply.

The use of the word “aspiration” was a second misstep from Sunak, which Starmer capitalised on. The Labour leader accused the Tories of “killing off aspiration in this country”, asking the Prime Minister: “Why is the dream of homeownership far more remote now than it was when his party came into power?” He used this topic to bring discussion back round to Sunak’s weakness as Prime Minister – the opposition’s current go-to attack line. Starmer joked about rumours that Sunak is preparing for a relaunch called ‘Operation Get Tough’. Alluding to one of the various backbench rebellions facing the Prime Minister, Starmer asked: “How tough is he gonna get with his backbenchers who are blocking the new homes this country so badly needs?” The Labour leader twisted the knife in by offering the opposition’s support to get the government’s housing policy over the line.

Starmer reiterated Labour’s argument that the government is choosing to fail working people, saying: “Whether it’s private schools, oil giants or those who don’t pay their taxes here, every week he hands out cash to those that don’t need it.” His claim that Sunak also “gets pushed around” and “gets weaker” each week was strengthened by how easily the Labour leader dominated today’s session. The repeated missteps by the Prime Minister left him on the back foot throughout.

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