Labour and SNP falling into Sunak’s bear trap

Madeline Grant

Keir Starmer’s tactics at PMQs were quite simple – wrong-foot the Prime Minister by highlighting the shortcomings of the immigration system. Given recent events, this should have been an easy task. But somehow, Starmer spent the session flailing about – dispatching numerous heavy-handed jibes, yet rarely managing to land a blow. A total of 18,000 people were deemed ineligible for asylum last year, began the leader of the opposition. “How many of them have actually been returned?” he asked.
The PM dodged Starmer’s question with the ease of a lawyer grounding a flight to Rwanda. Sir Keir, he said, was “on the side of the people-smugglers … just another lefty lawyer standing in our way”. The correct answer was 21 out of 18,000. “We all know the Honourable Gentleman’s plan,” crowed Sunak, buoyed by excited baying from the Tory ranks. “Open-door immigration and unlimited asylum!” Amid Tory jeers, Starmer hit back against the “lefty lawyer” slur by … mentioning his stint as director of public prosecutions. The Speaker, in best geography master mode, tartly suggested to the noisier elements on the back benches that continued rowdy behaviour would result in an early exit from the Chamber for “a cup of tea, probably a strong one”.
Difficult as it is to imagine the Labour Party being tough on Channel migrants – like picturing Joan Collins in a tracksuit – Starmer was wise enough to focus his questioning on the Government’s failure to restrict numbers of channel crossers, not the principle itself. Not so Stephen Flynn of the SNP, who asked Sunak whether his migrant policy was “taking inspiration from Nigel Farage or Enoch Powell?” Coming from the (white) SNP leader to a PM of Indian origin, this was bold enough. Given the non-existent numbers of migrants housed in Flynn’s Aberdeen South constituency, it showed more of a brass neck than the Statue of Liberty. “What a load of nonsense,” chuckled the PM, evidently delighted that Flynn had tramped so enthusiastically into the waiting bear trap. Everyone played to their respective galleries. Away from the Commons, crisp salesman turned BBC commentator Gary Lineker compared Tory immigration policies to 1930s Germany. Back in the Chamber Imran Hussain, of Bradford East, followed Lineker’s lead with an outburst of the “anyone who disagrees with me is Hitler” variety. The PM’s plan, ranted Hussain, was “dystopian, far-Right, appeasing, anti-refugee …” Once again, Mr Sunak suppressed a smirk. Operation “make the opposition look soft” was working.
“Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and 72 genders,” began Miriam Cates. No, this wasn’t a question about the average male MP’s internet search history, but about inappropriate sex education in schools. A few members of the old guard looked momentarily discombobulated by this unexpected subject matter. Bill Cash glowered forbiddingly. Metaphorical monocles dropped all over the House. This being International Women’s Day, a day of performative feminism and opportunistic marketing emails – “Happy #IWD ladies, have you tried this new lip filler?” – inevitably a few backbenchers hopped on the #girlboss bandwagon. Anna Firth used her parliamentary privilege to put the PM firmly on the spot with a tough question about women’s football in Southend. Would the Prime Minister agree with her that sport, especially football, has the potential to empower women? Come back chauvinist grandees in top hats, all is forgiven!