Lovable losers

Can you let the country down and still be adored? Rishi hopes so


Rishi Sunak opened Prime Minister’s Questions by praising the Lionesses, the England women’s football team. They had, of course, not won the World Cup, but you can be a loser and still be beloved by your country. Or so Sunak must hope, anyway.

The prime minister had come into the chamber carrying his big folder full of answers and now, as Keir Starmer rose to speak, he began studying something in it intently, his brow furrowed as though he were reading some deeply worrying piece of news. It couldn’t have been about anything in Britain, because everything here is going so swimmingly well.

But in fact it was “acting decisively” for which he wasn’t sorry

This seems to be a new tactic from Sunak. The intention is probably to make it seem as though he has more important things to do than listen to the Labour leader, and to stop him from making the irritated faces he usually does when anyone suggests that Britain may not be an Elysian paradise, governed by the wisest rulers since Pericles.

Starmer certainly seemed oddly unpersuaded by the idea that the country is enjoying a golden age that makes us the envy of other, lesser, nations. He asked whether it had been such a smart idea, in retrospect, to cut the budget for school repairs a couple of years after the roof of a primary school had fallen in. “Does he agree with his education secretary that he should be thanked for doing a good job?” the Labour leader finished. Down the frontbench from Sunak, Gillian Keegan gave a tiny nod, as if to say yes, we should be a bit more bloody grateful.

So gripped was the prime minister by whatever he was reading – Jilly Cooper? The updated Adobe licensing conditions? – that he almost seemed to forget to rise when the question finished. “We make no apology,” he began when he finally got up, and we wondered if he was going to simply reply that there isn’t enough money to go round, and that intact ceilings in schools are like private rooms in hospitals, something for which people should be willing to pay. But in fact it was “acting decisively” for which he wasn’t sorry.

As for the idea that he had cut spending on school maintenance, the prime minister said the money was going up. “Aha!” shouted Conservative MPs. “Far from cutting budgets,” Sunak went on, buoyed up, “the amount spent last year was the highest in a decade.” Now it was Labour’s turn to be triumphant, because this is precisely their argument, that schools are falling down because the government cut repair budgets over the last 13 years. Opposition MPs waved their arms, tracing  the shape of a graph of falling spending.

On Starmer went, naming schools that had been designated for rebuilding when Labour left office, but had seen this cancelled under the Tories, and which were now rated unsafe. A couple of seats along from Sunak, Oliver Dowden stared at the Labour leader with a loathing unparalleled since Draco Malfoy first encountered Harry Potter.

Sunak generally struggles to pull off Johnson lines, perhaps because he lacks the shamelessness

Sunak was dismissive. Labour, he said, hadn’t mentioned failing concrete during debates on spending plans. Starmer was simply jumping on “the next political bandwagon”. Conservative MPs enjoyed that, but the format of PMQs doesn’t help Sunak at these moments. His instinct, naturally,  is to defend the government’s record, and his own. His own side cheers him for it. But beyond the chamber, it’s hard to argue that unsafe schools are a fuss about nothing.

It was, Starmer replied “the sort of thing you expect from cowboy builders, saying that everyone else is wrong, that everyone else is to blame, protesting that they’ve done an effing good job, even as the ceiling falls in.” Keegan, who has set the tone for the government’s response on this, was busy in her own folder, checking each school the Labour leader had mentioned against her own list of dangerous buildings. Perhaps she was wondering how many she’d be able to tick off.

The Conservative backbenches were heckling now. Sitting on the steps running up between the seats, Richard Holden hoped he was out of sight of the Speaker, hidden by Daniel Kawczynski, the tallest MP, who was sitting between them. His precise shouts were inaudible in the press gallery, but Sunak, sitting much closer, may have been encouraged by them.

“This is exactly the kind of political opportunism that we’ve come to expect from Captain Hindsight,” the prime minister told the chamber, to Tory delight. Starmer hadn’t given the issue “a single mention in his so-called landmark speech on education.” That wasn’t true: the speech had specifically accused the government of “twiddling their thumbs” as “school buildings start to crumble”. Perhaps Sunak’s researchers had assumed this was a reference to pudding. But the “Captain Hindsight” jibe has never been accurate. It was invented by Boris Johnson to try to cover the reality that during the pandemic the government very often changed position after Starmer, sensing what was coming, had got out ahead of them.

Sunak generally struggles to pull off Johnson lines, perhaps because he lacks the shamelessness. Starmer, on the other hand, had a very tough line ready. “Just like he thought his tax rises were for other families to pay,” the Labour leader said of the prime minister, “he thinks his school cuts are for other families to endure. He won’t lift a finger when it comes to protecting other people’s schools, other people’s safety, other people’s children.”

This stuff, referencing the prime minister’s family, isn’t to everyone’s taste, but Starmer has decided it’s what he needs to do to win, and he’s not interested in a runners-up medal.

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