It’s a tale of two grillings today in British politics.
Capturing the largest part of SW1’s attention today, of course, is Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Covid inquiry — as the former prime minister stares down chair Baroness Hallett’s lead lawyer: the headline-generating Hugo Keith KC. But current PM Rishi Sunak faced his own forensic dressing-down this afternoon — albeit in rather less aberrant circumstances.
Still, the House of Commons isn’t the PM’s favourite forum at the moment. Earlier this week, he faced his first defeat in the chamber as 22 Conservative MPs defied a three-line whip to back an opposition amendment on infected blood compensation. Half an hour later, Sunak faced a further rebellion of 28 Tory MPs, who sided against the government’s plans to require car companies to make 22 per cent of their sales next year electric vehicles.
The government won the vote because Labour supported it; but it is a further sign of the times for Rishi Sunak. In light of this, he might view his appearance before the Covid inquiry next week as offering some welcome respite.
Nonetheless, prime minister’s questions began at 12 noon today with a rare show of Conservative unity. It came as Sir Michael Fabricant mocked the Labour leader as a “fanboy” of Margaret Thatcher, amid laughter and jeering from the government benches. Teed up by Fabricant, Sunak declared: “I am always happy to welcome new Thatcherites from all sides of this house”.
But it was downhill from here for the prime minister. And the Conservative benches soon quieted as Keir Starmer took to his feet, taking aim squarely at the government’s still-unimplemented Rwanda deportation plan.
The Labour leader, predictably, mocked the government’s “Rwanda gimmick”, highlighting that zero asylum seekers are yet to be flown to the African nation to have their claims processed.
But the Labour leader wanted Sunak to own his party’s apparent failure on its flagship “small boats”-stopping proposal. And so he continued: “Apart from members of his own cabinet, how many people has the prime minister sent to Rwanda?”.
Sunak refused to bite, responding instead with a pre-prepared soundbite: “We will do everything it takes to get this scheme working so that we can indeed stop the boats”. He subsequently accused Starmer of being “on the side of the people smugglers” over his refusal to back the plan.
Starmer returned fire by listing the various phases the Rwanda Plan has passed through since it was announced under Boris Johnson’s government in April 2022. First the government claimed 10,000s of asylum seekers would be settled in Rwanda, Starmer began; this pledge was later watered down to mere hundreds, he continued — before noting the Court of Appeal’s judgement earlier this year, which found the African nation only had enough accommodation to house 100 individuals.
Today, Starmer closed, a “stubbornly consistent” zero asylum seekers have been flown to Rwanda. The Labour leader knows that as long as that remains the case, he can always rely on an easy win at PMQs.
Starmer then reached for the government’s new Rwanda treaty, figuratively and literally, as he brandished the thin document before the Conservative benches. Referring specifically to Article 19 and Annex A, Starmer pointed out — with lawyerly attentiveness — the additional money the UK may have to send to Rwanda for accommodation and upkeep over a further five years. That is despite the PM insisting “no incremental money” had been agreed yesterday.
He told the commons: “Article 19 of the treaty says the parties shall make arrangements for the United Kingdom to resettle a portion of Rwanda’s most vulnerable refugees in the United Kingdom.
“So how many refugees from Rwanda will be coming here to the UK under the treaty?”
Sunak defended his government’s record, saying “It’s a point of pride that we are a compassionate country that does welcome people from around the world”. But he couldn’t dispute the facts that the Labour leader had laid before him.
He closed with one of his regular claims that Labour’s immigration policy “would see us accept 100,000 illegal migrants” from the European Union. It prompted the usual press release from fact-checkers. Full Fact, for one, labelled the claim “incorrect, as according to the Migration Observatory the figure is based on a ‘mathematical error’”.
Nor did the reference to Starmer’s alleged EU-apologist ways succeed in corralling the Conservative benches. Again, it is highly revealing of Sunak’s political woes that his MPs seemed distinctly disinterested in the jibe. In turn, Starmer responded by painting a picture of the Rwandan government enjoying the benefits of the Rwanda deal — flush with UK taxpayer money — without actually taking in any asylum seekers.
Then, continuing a theme from last week, Starmer again tried to rile up James Cleverly — who appears to find PMQs especially animating — with a further reference to his choice language.
“I’m beginning to see why the home secretary said the Rwanda scheme — something to do with bats, was it?”, Starmer said. Cleverly, sitting opposite, shook his head in response. It was a reference to the home secretary’s reported view of the Rwanda plan as “bat****”.
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The prime minister later went on to quote shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, declaring that in a recent interview he “didn’t rule out rejoining the European Union!”. Again, little response from the Conservative backbenches, and Starmer had a good retort: “Forget the private jets. He’s on some sort of private planet of his own”.
So, another very difficult PMQs for Rishi Sunak — and, once more, on a topic the Conservative Party should be eager to shout about.
Of course, the Rwanda plan is right now the subject of a fierce intra-party dispute for the prime minister. In this way, Starmer’s mocking tilt at the latest iteration of the Rwanda policy succeeds, at once, in exposing and deepening this clear divide. It was telling that so few Conservative backbenchers were willing to cheer the prime minister’s current approach.
The government’s flagship proposal, therefore, once referred to as “red meat” for Conservative backbenchers, is now instead the clearest source of Sunak’s present political travails.
PMQs verdict: Starmer 4, Rishi Sunak 2.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
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