Left and right hooks

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak exchanged sloppy blows as Lee Anderson found a warm welcome in the stands

Artillery Row

Thirteen minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions was due to start, Lee Anderson, the GB News controversialist and occasional member of parliament for Ashfield, walked, a little nervously, into the House of Commons. He stood at the threshold, looking around. Where was he supposed to sit, now that he had been suspended from the Conservative Party? 

He needn’t have worried. He was immediately greeted by Tory colleagues. Andrea Jenkyns, who thanks to a freak series of events in 2022 must now be described as a “former education minister”, leaned forward from where she was sitting to say something to him. Anderson walked up the steps and sat between her and Dean Russell, the MP for Watford, who also seemed pleased to see him. It was a touching moment of support for a colleague whose only crime had been to go on TV and say something so obviously racist that not even the Conservative Party could ignore it.

Sunak remains unable to explain why he came to this conclusion

Or maybe they could. It turns out that when Rishi Sunak describes something as “completely unacceptable”, his MPs don’t agree. Perhaps it’s because, five days after Anderson gave an interview that was sufficiently bad that it meant he could no longer be a Conservative MP, Sunak remains unable to explain why he came to this conclusion. The result is a prime minister paying the price for confronting a popular member of his own ranks without gaining the benefit of standing up for decency. Sunak’s defenders point out that he inherited a bad position. His special skill is finding ways to make things worse.

The opening question to Sunak, as so often these days, was a bit of Hot Dog Toryism. Giles Watling of Clacton wanted to know why dentistry is “in crisis” in his Clacton constituency. The Conservatives: just trying to find the guys who did this.

Up rose Keir Starmer. “Tory MPs spent last week claiming that Britain is run by a shadowy cabal made up of activists, the deep state and, most chillingly of all, the Financial Times,” he began. “At what point did his party give up on governing and become the political wing of the Flat Earth Society?”

It was a particularly bad-tempered exchange. Both men had mud to sling. When Starmer talked about Liz Truss, Tories jeered and pointed to the space where Jeremy Corbyn usually sits. Other senior Labour MPs, Sunak pointed out, had refused to back Corbyn when he was leader, but Starmer hadn’t, “because he is spineless, hopeless and utterly shameless”. 

Starmer replied that despite Truss expounding some fairly bonkers theories to US audiences last week, she remained a part of the Conservative Party because the prime minister was “too weak” to stand up to the “tinfoil hat brigade” on his own benches. Sunak hit back: the voters at Thursday’s Rochdale by-election “have a choice of three former Labour candidates, two of whom are antisemites”. 

Through all this, the striking thing was how noisy the chamber was. The Conservative benches hooted at Starmer, and roared their support for Sunak. At one point Watling had his hands cupped round his mouth as he bellowed. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, usually anxious to try to keep order, standing up and threatening noisy members with expulsion, simply sat there, straining to hear the exchange and waving his hand ineffectually at the government benches. He is a man without authority, unable to discipline Conservative MPs for fear of provoking more signatures on the no-confidence motion against him sparked by last week’s mess. It was a pitiful sight.

The most entertaining moment came a little later, when Cardiff Labour MP Anna McMorrin accused the prime minister of posing for photographs “with a group that shares extremist conspiracy theories on climate change and campaigns against net zero”. Sunak had a brief – and funny – reply: “That is no way to talk about the Welsh farming community.” 

Was this a backhanded compliment from the prime minister? Probably not. There was a time when accusing someone of sharing conspiracy theories was an insult. Now it just means they might be a Conservative MP. Or a suspended one. At the end of the session Anderson rose from his place on the Tory benches and ambled out. He needn’t have worried that he wouldn’t be welcome.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover