Isabel Hardman Isabel Hardman

Starmer calls Sunak a ‘tech brother’ in rowdy PMQs

Credit: Parliament TV

There were no defections today at Prime Minister’s Questions, which probably put Keir Starmer in a slightly stronger position, ironically, given the fuss about Natalie Elphicke crossing the floor last week. The Tories have so thoroughly trashed their former colleague that the most damaging thing Labour could probably do now would be to send the Dover MP back to the Tories. 

The defections in the past few weeks have been a light relief from a rather repetitive slanging match featuring the same lines from both men. But mercifully both Starmer and Rishi Sunak had chosen some new attacks for this session. Sunak wanted to talk about the ‘gangbusters’ economy and his pledge to boost defence spending, while Starmer wanted to hammer the early release of dangerous criminals as part of the government’s attempts to ease overcrowding in prisons. 

Starmer tried to call Sunak a ‘tech bro’ and fluffed the line, then resorting to saying ‘tech brother’

The Labour leader started with the political talking point of the week: the Conservatives’ imaginary crackdown on rainbow lanyards in the civil service. He mocked this as being ‘the gravest of threats’ and contrasted it with Sunak’s own speech about the serious security threats to the UK on the same day. Then he asked whether delayed court hearings would make people feel safer. Sunak was ready for the lanyard chat, quipping that the Labour leader should ask his chief of staff – Sue Gray – about civil service impartiality. He then repeated his attack from Monday, pointing out that some Labour shadow ministers had voted against renewing Trident. 

Starmer started to push on the prisons issue, demanding assurances that no dangerous prisoners would be released early. Sunak insisted that they would not, and then returned to the issue of defence spending. It is worth pointing out that the Prime Minister has only been able to attack Labour on this since he made his own pledge to raise funding for the military to 2.5 per cent by 2030. Previously he was being attacked by his own backbenchers for having almost exactly the same position as Labour of promising to put the money up when circumstances allowed. 

The problem with Sunak’s assurance about no dangerous prisoners being let out is that the reports of individual cases have already appeared to contradict that. And that’s why Starmer asked the same question again, pressing the Prime Minister on whether anyone considered to be high risk would be let out. Sunak said no, and reminded the chamber that Labour had voted against tougher sentences for violent prisoners. So then Starmer pounced, having led Sunak into a trap in a very lawyerly fashion. Lewes prison, he told MPs, was releasing high risk prisoners, including one deemed to be dangerous to children. Sunak continued to insist that no one should be eligible for early release if they were considered dangerous, which was a shift from him saying that no one was being released. On Starmer went with the Lewes case, asking whether the Prime Minister would now back Labour’s calls to stop domestic abusers from being released early. Sunak then said Labour had presided over the early release of thousands of violent offenders – the classic ‘we’re bad but you’re worse’ defence – and then claimed one Labour frontbencher had said prison does not stop crime. 

There was a truly excruciating moment in the session where Starmer tried to call Sunak a ‘tech bro’ and fluffed the line, then resorting to saying ‘tech brother’. The chamber is an unforgiving environment and when someone messes up a personal attack, MPs always mock them mercilessly. Sunak used the slip to make the point that Britain had always been forward looking but that Starmer would probably have ‘he just showed spectacularly why he’s just not fit to lead this country into the future’ and added ‘if he was around he probably would have called James Watt the “steam bro”.’ It was a good line, in a reasonably uncomfortable session for the PM. 

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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