The incredible shrinking PM

A low blow from Starmer

Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

There are few sadder parliamentary noises than the sound of one MP trying and failing to get a cheer going from his colleagues. “YEEEEEEEEEEE-ahhhhh …” came a lone voice from the Tory benches as Rishi Sunak walked into the House of Commons, starting at full winning-goal-in-the-final-seconds-of-extra-time and rapidly trailing off to embarrassed silence as it became clear that no one else was joining in. It was, to those of us whose tastes run to mild cruelty, very funny.

Keir Starmer’s tastes, we would discover later, go further in this direction than we’d previously guessed. He’d started Prime Minister’s Questions on the subject of the probation service, “yet another vital public service on its knees”. No one on the Conservative benches seemed anxious to dispute this opinion. We’re at the stage of things where ministers find out why the organisations that their predecessors ran down actually did matter. 

Starmer switched tracks. Should people who tried to avoid tax be ministers, he asked? There was no sign of Nadhim Zahawi in the Commons, and it’s been a while since anyone saw him. Soon he’ll need to get his lawyers to send someone a threatening letter, simply as a proof of life. 

“I’m pleased to make my position on this matter completely clear,” Sunak began, putting an unfortunate emphasis on “this matter” which rather suggested that he had been evasive about probation. He said he’d asked his independent adviser to “establish all the facts” about Zahawi’s tax situation, and that was that. 

“Anybody watching,” the Labour leader observed, “would think it is fairly obvious that someone who seeks to avoid tax cannot also be in charge of tax, yet for some reason, the prime minister cannot bring himself to say that.” This was a reference to Sunak’s extremely rich wife, Akshata Murthy, who last year announced that she was moving her tax affairs onshore. Was this a blow below the belt from Starmer? It was certainly getting close to it. Families are generally off-limits, but on the other hand the British prime minister’s wife should probably be paying tax in Britain. 

Sunak ignored the swipe at his domestic matters, and tried to argue that keeping Zahawi in place was the nobler course. “The politically expedient thing to do would have been for me to say that this matter must be resolved by Wednesday at noon, but I believe in proper due process,” he said. He would expand on this in his next answer: “I stand by my values and my principles, even when it is difficult.” It’s hard to see what the principled case is for keeping Zahawi, unless “tax should be optional” is one of your values, though it’s possible that might be true for Sunak. 

The SNP’s new leader, Stephen Flynn, had a go next. Obviously a lot of us are having to accept that policemen and indeed prime ministers are getting younger, but Flynn is just 34. He wears extremely close-fitting suits with very thin ties. I keep expecting him to try to sell me a house. At previous PMQs he’s relied on performative anger. This time he seemed to hit his stride, going instead for dry humour. 

“May I ask the prime minister what advice he would have for individuals seeking to protect their personal finances?” he began, deadpan, taking his time. “Should they seek out a future chair of the BBC to help secure an £800,000 loan? Should they set up a trust in Gibraltar and hope that HMRC simply does not notice? Or should they do as others have done and simply apply for non-dom status?”

The most vicious line, though, had already come from Starmer

The chamber laughed, and Sunak seemed completely wrong-footed, offering a reply about energy bills. Flynn knew he’d hit his mark. “I am not sure what question the prime minister thought I asked, but that certainly was not it,” he said. It was Burns Night, so he gave us a quote from the Scottish bard: “Is it little wonder that people in Scotland may well consider the Tory party to be a parcel of rogues?” The punch was all the harder for being delivered in an understated tone.

The most vicious line, though, had already come from Starmer. After listing all Sunak’s problems, he’d finished with a simple question. “Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?” 

Labour denied afterwards that this was a reference to Sunak’s height, but of course it was, and it was as effective as it was personal. The Commons loved it. Even the Tory front bench laughed. It was the sort of jibe Boris Johnson might have made, and got away with. It’s personal and borderline nasty, but it might stick. Perhaps Starmer is more ruthless than we thought.

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