Picture Credit: UK Parliament/Maria Unger

Sunak stumbles

The Prime Minister spent half of the afternoon trying to extract his foot from his mouth


Lee Anderson, the GB News presenter, climate scientist and occasional Conservative MP, is currently urging people to sign up for a “People’s Forum”, hosted by his TV channel, where people can put any question they like to Rishi Sunak. The obvious one being: “How are you so bad at this?”

Having started the week agreeing a very large bet on deporting refugees with Piers Morgan, the prime minister spent Tuesday explaining that he’d been too weak to say no. It was hard to see how he would be able to top that, but somehow on Wednesday he managed it.

The first item on the agenda at Prime Minister’s Questions was dentistry. “People in Northampton South are desperately short of NHS dental provision,” began Andrew Lewer, the local MP. What’s notable about this is that Lewer is a Conservative. An underappreciated feature of British politics in 2024 is that not even Tory MPs, people whose jobs depend on it, actually think that life is good under the Conservatives. We keep being told that the Labour polling lead is soft, but if salaried Tories don’t believe in the product, why should anyone else?

Sunak, going in with his script, hadn’t paused to think whether this was really the moment to kick that particular political football

There are quite often notable figures in the chamber for PMQs: ambassadors or politicians, or people otherwise in the news. Keir Starmer opened by mentioning that Esther Ghey, the mother of the murdered transgender teenager Brianna, was present. Her “unwavering bravery” had, he said, “touched us all”. Then he got down to business. “A year ago, the prime minister promised to get NHS waiting lists down,” he said. “Isn’t he glad he didn’t bet a grand on it?”

Obviously the correct answer is that a thousand pounds isn’t even a rounding error in Sunak’s vast fortune, but he could hardly say that. Happily, his office had seen this question coming, and prepared an answer on it. “At least I stand by my commitments,” he said, smiling, before pointing to Starmer. “He’s so indecisive the only bet he’d make is an each-way bet.”

After another poke from the Labour leader, the prime minister warmed to his subject: “It’s a bit rich to hear about promises from someone who’s broken every single promise he was elected on.” He had a script, and he set about delivering it with aplomb. “Pensions, planning, peerages. Public sector pay, tuition fees, childcare, second referendums!” Next to him Victoria Atkins, the Health Secretary, looked delighted. Behind him the Conservative benches were cheering. Starmer’s ruthless willingness to dump electorally tricky commitments has given them a lot of material, though it may also explain why he’s so far ahead in the polls.

But Sunak had more. “Defining a woman!” he yelled, before delivering the punchline. “Although to be fair, that was only 99% of a U-turn.” This reference to a previous awkward Starmer interview had Atkins chortling. Conservative MPs cheered. Their man had come out fighting.

Labour’s struggles over trans rights are a standard clap line that Sunak has used before and is surely planning to use a lot more before the election is over. And to MPs on the government benches, this was a regular piece of knockabout, not to be taken too seriously: the jokey part of PMQs, where both leaders try to entertain their own side. Some on the opposition benches felt the same: Rachel Reeves was smiling as Starmer rose to respond.

But context matters. Sunak, going in with his script, hadn’t paused to think whether this was really the moment to kick that particular political football.

On the opposition benches Stephen Flynn, the SNP leader, was looking up to the public gallery. He gestured at Sunak in disbelief.

The Labour leader, meanwhile, rose with a face like thunder. He shut his eyes for a moment as he stood at the dispatch box. “Oooooooooooh!” called the Tories, like schoolchildren mocking a teacher.

“Of all the weeks to say that,” Starmer said, his voice shaking. “When Brianna’s mother is in this chamber!” Beside him, Reeves too had stopped smiling, realising why her boss was so angry. “Shame,” Starmer went on. “Parading as a man of integrity when he’s got absolutely no responsibility.”

Having made the mistake Sunak decided his best course was to pretend it hadn’t happened

There was a suggestion afterwards from the Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch — who would cross the road for the chance to throw a punch in this battle — that Starmer was “point-scoring”, but it seems more plausible that, just as Sunak had given no thought at all to Ghey, the Labour leader, due to meet her that afternoon, had had her at the front of his mind all day and was genuinely appalled at the prime minister’s insensitivity.

Sunak stared into his binder. He’s not a wicked or insensitive man. He will be familiar with the thought that flits across every parent’s mind whenever a story of a child’s death is in the news: what if it were mine? He must have known that he’d blundered.

As with the awful Piers Morgan bet, it’s possible to see how it happened and yet boggle that it did. Starmer had told the prime minister that Ghey was there. How can you rise to the top of politics and yet not look at your script and decide to skip the next bit?

Not only that, but having made the mistake Sunak decided his best course was to pretend it hadn’t happened. On he ploughed, even when Labour’s Liz Twist rose to suggest he apologise, ignoring the comment completely even as opposition MPs yelled at him, and Starmer gestured up to the gallery.

Finally, at the close of the session, he tried to make it better, with some words of praise for Esther Ghey’s “compassion and empathy”. It was surely sincerely meant, but it was so late. The crassness of the original joke had been made worse by the refusal, even then, to properly acknowledge it.

Really, Rishi, how are you so bad at this?

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