Readers will be familiar with the ancient Greek myth of Sunakos, a young man who wished to be prime minister so much that the gods cursed him by giving him the job for what would, to everyone else, feel like forever.
Sunakos suffered from several sub-curses: the one thing he’d done that the public liked was a policy he personally hated; he was fabulously wealthy, but everyone complained whenever he spent any money; and he had the power to fly, but people kept telling him he ought to take trains instead.
But to watch Rishi Sunak at Prime Minister’s Questions is to watch someone out of their depth. It’s in the nature of the session that Sunak finds himself expected to have positions on everything from disused coal tips to NHS databases to electricity prices in Scotland. This isn’t easy, but it’s still amazing how unprepared Sunak seems. A question about coal mining in South Wales got an answer about rail electrification in North Wales. On energy, he barely challenged the SNP’s highly questionable claim that Scots pay more than the English. It was poor stuff.
All of that would have been bad enough, but the prime minister seems to have finally lost the support of the MPs behind him. They’re not furious, as they were with Boris Johnson, but they look defeated.
The latest disaster was Sunak’s decision to confect a row with the Greek government about the Elgin Marbles. Not since King Priam woke up wondering if that was burning he could smell has someone been so wrong-footed by a visit from Greeks. Johnson, whatever his other flaws, would have known these were people to be treated with great care. But Sunak, one suspects, could be persuaded that Timeo Danaos et Donna Ferentes are currently in the celebrity jungle.
It had given Keir Starmer a great deal of ammunition, and he used all of it. He began by accusing Sunak of trying to humiliate the Greek prime minister. “Why such small politics?” he asked.
Irritated, Sunak replied that he had realised his counterpart simply wanted “to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past”. This is obviously quite different from what he was doing himself, which is standing firm on vital matters of longstanding national interest. He did seem astonishingly put out that the Greeks had promised not to mention the Marbles, but had then done so. “When people make commitments, they should keep them,” stropped Sunak, who served in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet for three years.
As he worked through his six questions, Starmer switched back and forth between Greece and immigration, punching Conservative bruises with aplomb. The prime minister, he said, was fighting a “one-man war against reality”.
By his final intervention, he had the air of a man enjoying himself. “There can be few experiences more haunting for Conservative Members,” he began, “than hearing this prime minister claim that he is going to sort out a problem.”
In other circumstances, Tory MPs might have begun heckling at this point, but they sat silent. Starmer went on: “First, he said that he would get NHS waiting lists down; they went up. Unabashed by that, he said that he would get control of immigration; it has gone up. Following that experience, he turned his hand to bringing taxes down. And, would you believe it, the tax burden is now going to be higher than ever.” The Labour benches were laughing merrily away.
“It is ironic that he has suddenly taken such a keen interest in Greek culture,” Starmer continued, “when he has clearly become the man with the reverse Midas touch: everything he touches turns to” – he stopped and looked down the government benches to James Cleverly – “perhaps the Home Secretary can help me out.” Cleverly began pointing and saying something that looked an awful lot like an invitation to continue this discussion outside. “We might have to check the tape again,” joked the Labour leader.
It used to be that Starmer faced a wall of Conservative sound at such moments, but now Sunak found himself trying to speak into a hurricane of Labour jeers. Eventually the Speaker silenced them, but he didn’t need to tell the Tory benches to be quiet. Sunak tried to list his own achievements. Inflation had been halved! In reply his own side gave him silence. “The biggest tax cuts since the 1980s!” he went on, and still they sat there unmoved. Like a team that is four goals down with five minutes to go, the fight had gone out of them.
But worse, far worse humiliation was to come. Sunak was reaching the end of his prepared reply. He had a final insult to hurl at Starmer. “He can keep trying to talk,” he began, but the Speaker, in an effort to suppress a fresh set of Labour heckles, had risen to his feet, and the prime minister’s microphone was cut off.
Sunak’s closing words were lost in the din, but it seems worth recording them, as they couldn’t have summed up his situation better.
“Britain,” he said, almost inaudibly, “isn’t listening.”
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