Rishi rattled by Rwanda ridicule
Opinion Chief Political Commentator
The PM suffered a multiple motorway pile-up of ridicule in PMQs as Keir Starmer repeatedly asked an unanswerable question
January 17, 2024 3:17 pm(Updated 3:35 pm)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons (Photo: PA)
There’s nothing that concentrates the minds of your average MP more than the prospect of losing their seat.
And there’s nothing like Prime Minister’s Question time to remind backbenchers that politics is often a very tribal game, a binary choice between Government and opposition. As Sir Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak tried to take lumps out of each other at the latest PMQs, cheered on by the respective troops, it was more obvious than ever that we are in a general election year. Still, few in SW1 forget the old Westminster joke that your opponents may be in front of you but your real enemies are the ones sitting behind you.
With the Safety of Rwanda Bill rebels on the backbenches keeping their powder dry, Starmer had yet another successful PMQs outing precisely because he shone a spotlight on Tory divisions over this flagship legislation. For the second week in a row, he rammed home that Sunak himself had doubts about a policy described as “batshit” by Home Secretary James Cleverly. In a series of car-crash interviews, Illegal Migration Minister Michael Tomlinson couldn’t say when or how many migrants would be sent Rwanda – and faced much mockery for claiming a “1-1 draw” football match featured “lots of goals scored”.
But Sunak himself suffered a multiple motorway pile-up of ridicule in PMQs as Starmer repeatedly asked an unanswerable question – where were the 4,250 migrants who the Home Office said were earmarked for removal to Rwanda but had gone missing? The questions dripped with derision, and even the less than hirsute Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris laughed as Starmer talked about “hundreds of bald men scrapping over a single, broken comb” of the migration policy. Labour MPs laughed loud at their leader’s line that Conservatives were “all in open revolt against his policy, each other – and reality”.
Perhaps Starmer’s most withering riff was his attack that spending GBP400m “on a plan not to get anybody to Rwanda”, while losing 4,000 people, “is not a plan, it’s a farce”. “Only this Government can waste hundreds of millions of pounds on a removals policy that doesn’t remove anyone. Only this Government could claim that it’s going to get flights off the ground only to discover they couldn’t find a plane.
Only this Government could sign a removal deal with Rwanda only to end up taking people from Rwanda to here.”
Sunak’s attempt to hit back, by producing a copy of a human rights legal textbook to which Starmer had contributed, was hamstrung when the Speaker cut off his microphone (not for the first time) and declared the use of “props” was forbidden. The PM had more success, at least in terms of roars from his backbenches, when he highlighted that Starmer had once given legal advice to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the antisemitic Islamist group banned this week from organising in the UK. Even though it was untrue, Sunak’s line “When I see a group chanting ‘jihad’ on our streets, I ban them – he invoices them!” delighted his own side.
The Tory online attack ad – “Are You A Terrorist In Need Of Legal Advice? Better Call Keir” – rammed home the point. But within minutes of PMQs ending, the Tory unease was back as former Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick proceeded once more with ridicule of his own, savaging the Government’s Rwanda bill for being too open to challenge from the very “lefty lawyers” the PM so dislikes.
Despite the bruising rebellion and resignations over amendments, Government whips are confident of winning the third reading of the bill. Yet the whole spectacle of disunity proves that rebellion and indiscipline is a hell of a drug, especially given disunity over Brexit under Theresa May paved the way for a majority under Boris Johnson. Many MPs will step back from the brink tonight, fearing the defeat of such a landmark bill would trigger a general election which would wipe out their seats.
But the sense of ridicule, division and sense of chaos may linger long after the division bells have rung.