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PMQs verdict: Sans defection, Starmer continues to mock Conservative dysfunction –

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Ahead of prime minister’s questions today, Westminster was rife with speculation about a further Conservative defection. The estate, in short, has gotten rather used to Keir Starmer’s choreography: before today, two PMQs sessions in a row were kicked off by a beaming Labour leader introducing his latest MP find. First arrived Dr Dan Poulter, then followed Natalie Elphicke to a notably uniform drumbeat. Elphicke’s sensational defection statement, remember, dropped at exactly noon last Wednesday.

Today however, while moderate Tory Caroline Nokes’ decision to sport Labour red colours stoked an early ferment, Rishi Sunak finished PMQs with his majority of 38 MPs still intact. After all, this was the first prime minister’s questions in three weeks in which Starmer has not debuted an ex-Conservative MP.

This did not stop a large section of the parliamentary Labour Party having fun at the expense of their uneasy opponents, that said. In chorus, Labour MPs could be heard excitedly making “wooooh…” noises as Conservative MPs ambled the commons aisle, ultimately finding a seat on the, yes, government benches. As chief whip Simon Hart took his usual seat to Sunak’s right, the speaker interjected with a welcome dose of realism: “I’m not sure the chief whip is [defecting]”. Clip here.

It set the tone for a PMQs in which Starmer sought to mock Sunak into submission. Kicking off his line of questioning, the Labour leader joked that Sunak had treated the UK to his “seventh relaunch in 18 months” on Monday — a reference to his speech on security.

Starmer went on: “[The PM] vowed to take on the dangers that threaten the country, so it was good to see the minister for common sense [Esther McVey]immediately take up that mantle by announcing a vital crackdown on the gravest of threats — colourful lanyards”. Cue more laughter on the Labour benches.

This, in essence, was Starmer’s strategy this afternoon: he sought to contrast the government’s messaging on lanyards, which has won headlines in recent days, to the serious issues afflicting the country. Moving to a more substantive point then, Starmer declared the “prison system is in chaos” and asked the PM if his decision to “let prisoners out 70 days early makes our country more secure”.

Sunak opted to take the former half of Starmer’s question: on lanyards, he insisted that civil service impartiality is an important principle — adding that Starmer “could ask his chief of staff about that”. It was a quippy reference, of course, to Sue Gray — the civil servant-turned-Labour fixer.

Sunak went on to blast Starmer for not backing the government’s plan to increase defence spending. He also referenced two shadow cabinet ministers who “voted to scrap our nuclear deterrent” as evidence Labour cannot be trusted on security.

Starmer returned with another mocking sleight: “I appreciate he’s been busy on the front line of the war against lanyards”.

After some further tussling on prisons, Starmer continued to mock Sunak’s recent speech, pointing out that within hours of the PM styling himself as “Mr Security”, the Conservative Party was being investigated for accidentally publishing the personal details are hundreds of people.

“He must be the only tech bro in the country who can’t work a debit card or send an email”, Starmer added.

Sunak, curiously, had a response prepared for Starmer’s “tech bro” line. “He has just shown spectacularly why he is just not fit to lead this country into the future”, the prime minister blasted. Why? Because he “would probably call James Watt [of Industrial Revolution fame] the ‘Steam bro’”.

Returning to his core theme of prison overcrowding, the Labour leader’s final question criticised Sunak’s refusal to say how many prisoners have been released early, what their crimes were or what support their victims are getting. “Doesn’t he think that rather than confiscating lanyards like some jumped-up milk monitor he should stop issuing get out of jail free cards to prisoners and consider their risk to children?”, Starmer asked.

Sunak responded by quoting his own speech from Monday, insisting Labour have had 14 years to “think about nothing but the future” but has zero plans.

In sum, this was another session in which Starmer and Sunak spoke at cross purposes and to their chosen attack lines — another signal that the long election campaign is well underway.

Lunchtime briefing

Make Farage minister and election pact with Reform, Rees-Mogg tells Sunak

Lunchtime soundbite

‘Can I ask him to rise once to the standards befitting of his office and apologise for those puerile and pathetic remarks?’

—  Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, demands an apology from Rishi Sunak over comments the PM made on Monday, when he “compared North Korea, Iran, and Russia with those in Scotland who believe in independence”.

Sunak responded: “That is not what I said. But I would say that his party is indeed a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom”.

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On this day in 2023:

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