Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer trade personal insults during bruising PMQs

The exchanges took place after former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke called for Mr Sunak to be replaced as Tory leader.

Richard Wheeler
Wednesday 24 January 2024 14:44 GMT
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Rishi Sunak is being “bullied” by Tory MPs as they take part in the “longest episode of EastEnders ever put to film”, according to Sir Keir Starmer.

The Prime Minister countered by branding Labour leader Sir Keir a “human weathervane” and attacked his work as a lawyer as the pair traded personal insults in the House of Commons.

Mr Sunak arrived in the chamber to loud cheers from his MPs, just hours after former Cabinet minister Sir Simon Clarke called for him to be replaced as leader to avoid a Conservative “massacre” at the general election.

Sir Keir attempted to seize on the comments at Prime Minister’s Questions, telling the Commons: “The Prime Minister has had quite a week. From endlessly fighting with his own MPs to collapsing in laughter when he was asked by a member of the public about NHS waiting lists.”

Amid loud shouts from the Tory benches, Sir Keir continued: “I love this quaint tradition where the more they slag him off behind his back the louder they cheer in here.

“I was glad to see he managed to get some time off yesterday afternoon to kick back, relax and accidentally record a candid video for Nigel Farage.

“The only thing missing from that punishing schedule is any sort of governing or leadership. So was he surprised to see one of his own MPs say that he doesn’t get what Britain needs and he’s not listening to what people want?”

Mr Sunak replied: “He talks about what Britain needs, what Britain wants, what Britain values.

“This from a man who takes the knee, who wanted to abolish the monarchy, who still doesn’t know what a woman is, and who just this week, one of his frontbenchers said that they backed teaching divisive white privilege in our schools.

“Looking at his record, it’s crystal clear which one of us doesn’t get Britain’s values.”

Sir Keir said Mr Sunak “spouts so much nonsense” that it is “no wonder they are giving up on him”, asking: “Does he actually understand why his own MPs say he doesn’t understand Britain and that he is an obstacle to recovery?”

Mr Sunak replied: “He calls it nonsense but these are his positions … he chose to represent a now proscribed terrorist group, he chose to campaign against the deportation of foreign national offenders, just like he chose to serve (Jeremy Corbyn).

“That’s his record, those are his values, and that is exactly how he should be judged.”

Sir Keir defended his time as director of public prosecutions by insisting he was “putting terrorists and murderers in jail”, adding: “He was making millions betting on the misery of working people during the financial crisis.”

Sir Keir added: “We have seen this story time and time again with this lot, party first, country second.

“Safely ensconced in Westminster they get down to the real business of fighting each other to death. The country forced to endure their division and chaos, the longest episode of EastEnders ever put to film.”

Sir Keir criticised the Government’s record on protecting steel jobs and providing free childcare, asking: “Isn’t he embarrassed that the Tory party is yet again entirely focused on itself?”

Mr Sunak accused Sir Keir of engaging in “yet more sniping from the sidelines”, adding: “You can see exactly why Hizb ut-Tahrir hired him in the first place. But he wants to talk about these things, even his own party are now realising that he simply doesn’t have a plan for this country.”

The Prime Minister quoted criticism of Sir Keir by Labour MP Jon Cruddas (Dagenham and Rainham), and “long-time celebrity backer Steve Coogan”, adding: “Even the Labour Party know, he is not a leader, he is a human weathervane.”

Sir Keir said: “It is not the sidelines, it is behind him that the fire is coming in. He can try and blame the Labour Party all he wants, the difference is I have changed my party, he is bullied by his party.”

The Labour leader pressed further on the Government’s childcare plans, with Mr Sunak criticising the Opposition’s £28 billion green spending plans.

Sir Keir went on to accuse the Tories of “crashing the economy” and questioned if issues over childcare reforms are “yet another example of him simply not understanding how life works for other people”.

Mr Sunak said the Government is “delivering the biggest ever expansion of childcare in this country’s history” before suggesting this will be put at risk under a Labour government by their green spending plans.

Sir Keir said: “Making steelworkers redundant and failing to provide childcare is not a plan, Prime Minister, it’s a farce.”

As he highlighted further concerns over the Government’s childcare pledge, Sir Keir pointed to a quote from an unnamed Whitehall source who said it was going to be a “shit show”.

Sir Keir asked: “Who was it who briefed that to The Times? Hands up. When will the Prime Minister finally realise the biggest practical issue facing Britain is the constant farcical incompetence of the Government that he leads?”

Mr Sunak said Sir Keir had provided “absolutely no ideas” for the country, adding “things are improving” under the Government.

He said: “His £28 billion tax grab will take Britain back to square one.”

Labour later said it was “just a lie” that its £28 billion green investment plans would require it to raise taxes in the way Mr Sunak had suggested.

A party spokesman told journalists after PMQs: “It is just a lie what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s question time. Our plans do not require us to raise taxes on working people as he suggested.”

Asked whether the plans could be scuppered if Chancellor Jeremy Hunt goes on a spending splurge in the spring Budget, the spokesman said: “We’ll have to wait and see what the data shows but our view is that the commitment to the green prosperity plan is compatible with our fiscal rules.

“What we’ve also said is the fiscal rules are the thing that will take priority if we end up in that situation.

“It is not correct that the £28 billion is the cost of delivering our clean power 2030 mission, as has been claimed by opposition politicians,” he said.

“The £28 billion is a cumulative figure that includes the money the Government is already spending.”

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