Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Do Tory MPs really believe Rishi Sunak can win the election?

Rishi Sunak at PMQs with Scottish Secretary Alister Jack to his left (Credit: Parliament TV)

Could Rishi Sunak be about to win the next general election? That suggestion, made at Prime Minister’s Questions today by one of his backbenchers Bill Wiggin, was so unrealistic that the ministers sitting next to Sunak, including Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, couldn’t stop themselves from giggling. Mind you, Wiggin seemed to think that a primary factor in an election victory would be the number of potholes which had been repaired in his own constituency.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack couldn’t stop himself from giggling

Wiggin’s question was one of many written with tomorrow’s local and mayoral elections in mind, and was probably more interesting than the exchanges between Sunak and Keir Starmer, for the simple reason that we have heard them almost word for word a number of times before.

The main piece of news was the defection of Dan Poulter from the Tories to Labour. Sunak said he was pleased to see Poulter in the Commons, which was a reference to the jibe from his party colleagues that he didn’t turn up very often.

The pair then moved onto their familiar script. Starmer wanted to ask – again – about the ‘£46 billion plan’ to scrap National Insurance (NI). It isn’t actually a policy at the moment, just an ambition that both Sunak and his Chancellor have committed to over the long term (a sentence readers will recognise from countless previous PMQs posts, too). But it allows Starmer to suggest that Sunak is just the same as his predecessor in pursuing unfunded tax cuts. The Prime Minister’s retort was that it was well-known that economics wasn’t Starmer’s strong point, and that only one party was going to cut taxes at the next election: the Conservatives. 

Starmer then accused the Prime Minister of behaving as though answering questions was ‘beneath him’, and claimed that the value of the state pension would be halved by the NI plan, something Sunak quickly ruled out. He was able to point to Labour’s Bridget Phillipson saying this morning that NI was not linked to expenditure on public services in the way that Starmer was trying to suggest. 

It was a pretty boring set of exchanges, and not just because of the sense of déjà vu. Because Starmer has deliberately conflated a long-term ambition with something the Tories are about to do right now, he isn’t really able to suggest there are imminent threats to anything. The pensions attack fell flat for that reason.

Sunak is clearly happy to stay stuck in this tape loop, as it means he can talk about cutting taxes, even while presiding over a government that has broken records on the tax burden. The most awkward bit for the Prime Minister came when two MPs – the SNP’s Deidre Brock and then Labour’s Catherine West – raised anti-Ulez (Ultra Low Emission Zone) Facebook groups that Tory campaign staffers run and that Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall is reportedly a member of. They both said these groups contained racism. Sunak only went so far as to say he wasn’t aware of the groups, and in his second answer to West, argued that Londoners would be voting on the issues tomorrow. It didn’t sound like a resounding endorsement of Hall as his party’s candidate.

Isabel Hardman
Written by
Isabel Hardman
Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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