Keir Starmer mocks Tory 'meltdown' in first PMQs after Rishi Sunak narrowly avoids Rwanda rebellion

13 December 2023, 12:52

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer clashed at PMQs
Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer clashed at PMQs. Picture: Parliament TV

By Will Taylor

Sir Keir Starmer has mocked the Conservative "meltdown" in a pantomime PMQs, fresh on the heels of Rishi Sunak's narrow dodging of a rebellion on the Rwanda scheme.

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In a stormy clash in the Commons, Sir Keir took aim at Mr Sunak, quoting recent anonymous criticism from Tory MPs who have attacked him in the press.

He stuck the boot in after the prime minister narrowly avoided a defeat on his Rwanda plan, with right-wing members of his own party saying it should be toughened up so as not be vulnerable to human rights cases brought under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

They could have joined forces with Labour and opposition parties, who do not want the scheme to pass, to sabotage it - but in the end, despite much bluster before the vote, they abstained.

"He can spin it all he likes but the whole country can see that yet again the Tory party is in meltdown," Sir Keir told Mr Sunak at PMQs.

"And everyone else is paying the price.

"He kicked the can down the road, but in the last week, his MPs have said of him 'he's not capable enough, he's inexperienced, he's arrogant, a really bad politician'.

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer took aim in a panto PMQs
Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer took aim in a panto PMQs. Picture: Parliament TV

"Come on - who was it who said he’s a really bad politician? Hands up!"

Mr Sunak hit back: "He should hear what they have to say about him."

But Sir Keir responded: "They've obviously found the donkey for their nativity - the search for three wise men may take a little longer.

Read more: Gary Lineker rowing with Grant Shapps over Rwanda scheme 'seems to breach impartiality rules', says new BBC chief

"While they fight amongst themselves, there's a country out here that isn't being governed, where more than 100,000 people are paying hundreds more a month on their mortgages.

"Energy bills going back up in January, the economy shrinking again, NHS waiting lists an all time high.

"Doesn't he think the government would be better off fixing the messes they already made, rather than scrambling to create new ones?"

And referencing the various Tory factions, from the European Research Group to the New Conservatives, that are fracturing the party, he added: "Rather than indulging his backbenchers swanning around in their factions and their star chambers, pretending to be members of the mafia, when's he going to get a grip and focus on the country?"

Mr Sunak will be able to plod on after heading off the Tory insurrection, with would-be rebels hoping they can get the Rwanda legislation strengthened further down the line.

Sir Keir Starmer asked Tories to announce who was behind anonymous anti-Sunak briefings in the press
Sir Keir Starmer asked Tories to announce who was behind anonymous anti-Sunak briefings in the press. Picture: Parliament TV

The scheme triggered the resignation of Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, who blasted the current version of the plan, while sacked home secretary Suella Braverman has made a hobby of sniping from the sidelines.

Right-wing Tories believe deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is the only hope the party can have of making ground on Labour in the polls ahead of the next election.

Read more: Rwandan criminals could come to the UK as part of Rishi's migrant deal, James Cleverly admits

They believe the plan will prove enough of a deterrent so as to stop small boat crossings in the Channel.

Mr Sunak ruled out "disapplying" the ECHR to the law, infuriating those right-wing critics, but the government risks irking the more centrist Tories if it starts taking aim at human rights rules and conceding to voices like Ms Braverman and Mr Jenrick.

Ultimately, the Rwanda scheme passed its second reading - an early stage of the lawmaking process - 313 votes to 269 on Tuesday.

But it may yet be modified before it passes the Commons - and it then faces a serious challenge getting through the House of Lords.