Back to the future

Retro retorts and refugee rhetoric as Sunak invokes the ghost of 80s Starmer


“He’s just another lefty lawyer standing in our way!” Rishi Sunak declared, to cheers from his own side. He was attacking Keir Starmer, and the Conservative benches were lapping it up. “More!” they shouted. There seems likely to be much, much more of this to come.

The subject was immigration, again. The government is pleased with its latest attempt to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel in boats. Others are less pleased. Gary Lineker, for instance, is fuming. Tory MPs were, in turn, angry that he was angry.

By lunchtime the Home Secretary had courageously disowned the email,

This doesn’t really make sense. A major goal of Tuesday’s bill was to draw a big dividing line between the Conservatives and the kind of soft-hearted liberals who think that rich countries should help desperate people. Upsetting liberal media types was a sign of success. They should really be hoping for denunciations everywhere from Strictly to the CBeebies Bedtime Hour, just to remind everyone of the row.

Even as the BBC was trying to find a way to persuade its star to retract his words, Suella Braverman was being asked about some of hers. She — or someone claiming to be her — had emailed Conservative supporters on Tuesday evening claiming that previous attempts to stop small boat crossings had been prevented by “an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party”. Quite apart from the whiny tone — the government has a large majority in Parliament; Labour can’t stop it doing anything — this had upset the civil servants who had drafted the bill she was boasting about.

By lunchtime the Home Secretary had courageously disowned the email, letting it be known that she had nothing to do with it. Sadly, there was no explanation of why someone in Tory HQ had thought this was the kind of thing Braverman would say. Poor thing, she’s misunderstood even by her own side.

Back at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sunak was sure that he was onto a winner. Starmer, he said, wanted “open-door immigration”. He was on the attack: “While he may be on the side of the people smugglers, we are on the side of the British people.”

The 1980s are certainly a good place to look for embarrassing choices in anyone’s past

What was interesting was that Starmer had chosen the subject. If the Conservatives think that talking about the small boats helps them, Labour seem to think it’s their side that benefits. Starmer used all his questions to pick at the details of the plan, pointing out that previous government attempts to stop the crossings had fallen pathetically short of target. “I voted against the prime minister’s legislation last time because I said it would not work,” he said. “Since it became law, the numbers have gone up: he has proved me right.”

Sunak argued the Labour leader “has been on the wrong side of this issue his entire career.” He pulled out what he regarded as a killer quote: “He described all immigration law as ‘racist’!” This turned out to be a line from 1987 that had been dug up by a Tory press officer. The 1980s are certainly a good place to look for embarrassing choices in anyone’s past, but if the Conservatives really want to destroy Starmer, they need to find out if he ever bought a Jason Donovan LP.

The SNP’s Stephen Flynn went for the detail of the bill. Was it right, he asked, that a woman sex-trafficked to the UK would no longer be protected by modern slavery laws? Labour’s Imran Hussein would make a similar point later, asking if it was correct that Sir Mo Farah, trafficked to Britain as a child, would not have been protected under the bill. Sunak swerved the detail, and Flynn delivered what he seemed confident was a killer line: “From whom are his government taking inspiration, Nigel Farage or Enoch Powell?”

Farage, who has been talking about small boats for some time, is never far from Conservative minds. Powell is only cited these days by his opponents. Both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are the children of immigrants who arrived in the years before Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. Their very presence on the front bench is a refutation of his argument that Britain couldn’t cope with mass immigration. It will be quite hard to argue they’re his heirs.

Still, both the government and the opposition have found ground on which they apparently want to fight. Expect a lot more niggling questions of detail, and a lot more claims about lefty lawyers and activist blobs. Only another eighteen months or so to go until the election.

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