Rishi Sunak rose for prime minister’s questions on an auspicious day. It was his first anniversary in office and, as it happens, St Crispin’s Day, made famous by Shakespeare as the moment that an embattled English leader rallied his small troop of supporters and led them to a surprising victory.
Was the prime minister going to rebuke his colleagues for wishing their numbers were greater?
Was the prime minister going to rebuke his colleagues for wishing their numbers were greater? Would he promise them that in years to come they would, on this day, strip their sleeve and show their scars? No, no he wouldn’t. Perhaps he didn’t feel he had the range. Perhaps he felt that, however few Tory MPs there are, they will never plausibly be described as “happy”.
On the other side of the chamber, Keir Starmer had skipped the rallying cry and gone straight to the victory speech. He welcomed the new Labour MP for Mid-Befordshire, Alistair Strathern. “He defied the odds, history, and of course the fantasy Lib Dem bar charts.” There was laughter all round at that. And then he turned to the new MP for Tamworth, Sarah Edwards, and asked Sunak how he felt about the defeated Conservative candidate’s advice that people struggling with their bills should – as Starmer put it – “eff off”.
It was a slight odd line of attack. How many people have any idea who Conservative candidate for Tamworth even was, let alone what he said on a social media post three years ago? Are there not bigger issues in the world?
But perhaps that was the point. Starmer and Sunak have now discussed the obvious bigger issue, the Middle East, three times in less than a fortnight, and neither has much new to say. Meanwhile Starmer is under pressure from his own MPs, who think he ought to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. They never explain what Starmer’s intervention would achieve. It’s hard to believe they imagine it would actually alter the behaviour of either Israel or Hamas. Perhaps they simply hope it would raise the tone of the war.
Starmer, however, clearly disagrees. Maybe he hoped it would remind his own side that, whatever is happening abroad, Labour is winning at home.
Sunak joined Starmer in welcoming the new MPs. “After all,” he joked, “I suspect the new member for Mid-Beds may actually support me a little more than the last one.” This is probably true. Nadine Dorries was last seen explaining in the Daily Mail that Google have “these big dials” that they use to ensure that anyone searching for news about her finds only stories that suggest she’s bonkers. It is entirely possible that she believes Sunak has his own big dial in Downing Street. This may indeed be the main revelation in her forthcoming-but-delayed book about the plot against Boris Johnson, currently being edited by a team of clinically-trained lawyers.
There followed a very long exchange in which Starmer kept asking about the “eff-off” comment, and Sunak kept listing all the ways in which Britain is a paradise for the less well-off. It’s an argument he can’t win. Starmer’s questions were, it turned out, building to a flourish. The country needed an election, he said, adding that the public “have heard the government telling them to eff off, and they want the chance to return the compliment.”
SNP deputy leader Mhairi Black brought us back to earth by asking about Gaza. Sunak declined to call for a ceasefire, or to explain why he wouldn’t.
Just how hard that is to sustain became clear when Yasmin Qureshi, a Labour frontbencher, accused Israel of enacting “collective punishment in Gaza”, before asking: “How many more innocent Palestinians must die before the prime minister calls for a humanitarian ceasefire?” Her question was addressed to Sunak, but it may have been aimed at her own leader. It is a problem that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition have both reached a position that neither of them feels willing to publicly defend.
We got a moment of levity late in the day, when Labour’s Lilian Greenwood rose to ask about the Covid Inquiry. “Despite being a self-described ‘tech bro’, the prime minister has been unable to locate and provide his WhatsApp messages,” she said, suggesting perhaps he should get someone from IT to help him.
Sunak didn’t like that, but didn’t have much of a response. Behind him his band of brothers and sisters, facing likely defeat, had little to cheer. It may yet be that, years from today, Conservative candidates now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not there and hold their manhoods cheap. But frankly it seems unlikely.
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