Rishi does the maths

Sunak squirms under a grilling from Starmer on the NHS

Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

“It’s three minutes past twelve,” Keir Starmer began, full of portent. It was terribly exciting. “If somebody phones 999 now because they have chest pains and fear it might be a heart attack, when would the prime minister expect an ambulance to arrive?”

If Rishi Sunak knew the answer to that one — and we keep being told what a hound he is for detail — he wasn’t going to be so stupid as to answer. (It was a trick question, of course: if you called 999 at 12:03 last month and asked for the ambulance service, there was a one in ten chance it would have been 12:07 before you even spoke to a human.)

The prime minister instead said that if the Labour leader cared about people getting ambulances, he should support the government’s minimum safety legislation. That’s the law that would require some health staff to work on strike days. It’s a touch confused, mainly because no one believes that even this government would be so daft as to sack the health staff they’re already short of for ignoring the law. 

For all that they do a good impression of it, MPs aren’t stupid

Starmer pointed out that an ambulance is supposed to arrive for a person with chest pains in eighteen minutes. “I will ask him again. When will that ambulance arrive?”

Sunak talked again about his plan to make it illegal for ambulances to be late. It’s possible that he really believes that this simple piece of legislation will mean the emergency services work properly, though if he does, we have to ask why he only wants it to happen on strike days. Wouldn’t it be more useful to write this magical law so that ambulances will turn up on time every day? For that matter, can’t he include clauses that would eliminate waiting lists, and crime, and double-digit inflation? And wars? 

Starmer had statistics, of course. If you call an ambulance at noon in Peterborough, you get it at 2pm. In Plymouth, it’s nearly 3pm before it arrives. Tory MPs were furious at him for talking about this and heckled ferociously. 

Sunak, meanwhile, deployed the All-Purpose Conservative Health Service Answer: things are worse in Wales. This was greeted with a huge cheer from his benches. Tory MPs seem to really hate Wales, with a passion that can only be explained by rain-soaked childhood camping trips to the Brecon Beacons. “Wales!” they shouted when Starmer rose to speak. “Wales!”

They should have seen what the Labour leader would do next. “Stephanie from Plymouth was battling cancer,” he began, and the chamber went from raucous to silent as though someone had flicked a switch. For all that they do a good impression of it, MPs aren’t stupid. Every one of them knows just how bad things are in the NHS at the moment, and many will be quietly aware of horror stories in their own constituencies. 

Had Zahawi given an answer we’d missed?

In reply, the prime minister was surprisingly spiky, revealing a capability for angry passion that he’s previously hidden. Starmer, he said, “talks about political games. He is a living example of someone playing political games when it comes to people’s healthcare”. 

Starmer had the better final line, talking of “lethal chaos” in the health service. Sunak replied that Starmer had no principles, because he’d dumped the promises he made to get elected Labour leader. This has some truth to it, though it’s a bit odd to see a Conservative prime minister complaining that someone no longer supports nationalising the commanding heights of industry. 

At the end of the session, Labour’s Alex Sobel asked about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs, which are what one might politely call “complicated”. Zahawi, the prime minister replied, “has already addressed the matter in full and there is nothing more that I can add”. 

This was an odd answer, because apart from getting his lawyers to send letters to a blogger, Zahawi has kept very quiet about all this. Had he given an answer we’d missed? Sunak’s spokesman explained afterwards this meant Zahawi had explained himself to the tax authorities, which is actually a funnier explanation than anything I can make up. Sunak promised a government of transparency, and, to be fair, everyone can see right through it. 

Later, the Commons got on with the business of the day, debating the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. 

Britain left the European Union three years ago, and yet still we aren’t free of this stuff. One of the few promises of Brexit that everyone could get behind was that we wouldn’t have to listen to any more speeches from Sir Bill Cash on the problems with the EU’s legislative process. The government hasn’t delivered even on this most basic improvement to our national life. Perhaps they could try passing a law against him.

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