Voices: Prime Minister’s Questions should have come with a trigger warning
PPMQsTSD is not a recognised medical condition; principally because it can only possibly affect the roughly eight people in the world to actually watch Prime Ministers’ Questions regularly enough to have become psychologically traumatised by it. But for those of us who do suffer, this week’s edition should have come with a trigger warning.
We have, it turns out, just been trying to ignore the pain from the wounds of the May/Corbyn and the Johnson/Corbyn years, which still have not healed. Yes, from (not quite) the same people who brought you “Your NHS in Wales is worse than my NHS in England”, and “Your Islamophobia is worse than my antisemitism”, comes “Your bullying is worse than my bullying”.
Well, not quite. It was, specifically, “Your turning a blind eye to bullying allegations is worse than my turning a blind eye to bullying allegations”.
To which the only sane response, from anyone normal, would have been to turn a blind eye to the entire thing, choosing instead to dig out that old VHS of a cherished loved one’s funeral.
Keir Starmer wanted to know the whats, the whens and the whys of what Rishi Sunak knew about Nadhim Zahawi, to which Rishi Sunak has a more than reasonable answer: he has sacked him. But the reason he wanted to know is because he knows there’s yet more coming down the line. That Dominic Raab is the subject of somewhere in the region of 10 million bullying allegations, which today have been said to have left at least one victim feeling “suicidal”.
So he wants to make clear that sitting around and not doing anything other than waiting for various enquiries to have run their course is not good enough.
Rishi Sunak inevitably saw this coming, and had to hand last month’s comments from Labour MP Rosie Duffield, who said that being in the Labour Party is sometimes like being in an “abusive relationship” (which were not lightly chosen words, given that she has spoken movingly in the past about having been in one).
For context, Ms Duffield is her party’s most vocal participant in the debate on women’s rights and gender ideology; a fight that she believes the leadership is calculatedly leaving her to fight alone.
And this was all Sunak required as his link road back to his happy place; of pointing out, for roughly the 10 millionth time, that while other leading Labour Party figures spoke out and indeed walked out, Starmer sat quietly next to Jeremy Corbyn for five long years and said or did precisely nothing.
This may or may not be true, but the trouble for Sunak is that it isn’t working. His attacks are evidence only of a defter, shrewder politician than he is proving to be. That he managed to emerge largely untainted from the Corbyn years, win the leadership, and then kick him out of the parliamentary party altogether.
He placated Corbynistas like Rebecca Long-Bailey with shadow cabinet jobs, then sacked them at the very first instance of trouble (Long-Bailey’s crime was to retweet a very long interview with Coronation Street’s Maxine Peake, which contained, three-quarters of the way down, two short sentences of deranged antisemitic conspiracist garbage that she may not even have read). Which means that people look at him and see his party has very clearly changed.
Sunak, meanwhile, has managed no such thing. He sat by Johnson’s side for two a bit years and emerged with a fixed penalty notice for breaking Covid rules (he’s now on a hat trick). He’s placated his divided party via various unhinged cabinet picks, but is now tolerating their predictably appalling behaviour (most of which he clearly already knew about). Which means that people look at him and see more of the same: more sleaze, more scandal.
Starmer, it now seems obvious, had a clear five-year plan. Two and a half years sorting out the party, the next two and a half going after the country. Sunak’s job is much harder – two years to do both, and from an even worse starting position.
At the moment, he’s spectacularly failing, and no amount of pointing at Keir Starmer and saying “You’re just as bad as me” will change that. It will only make it worse.