PMQs verdict: after his local election drubbing, Rishi Sunak accuses Labour of ‘plotting’ a coalition

NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan assesses who came out on top in this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions

After winning more than 600 council seats in last week’s local elections - and the Conservatives losing around double that number - today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (10 May) was always likely to be a relatively open goal for Sir Keir Starmer, who had Labour’s success at the ballot box to boast about.

He opened with a scripted joke about Rishi Sunak having to correct the record a week ago about employment numbers - asking for a further update “now he’s cost a thousand Tory councillors their jobs”. Starmer then challenged the Prime Minister on the cost of living - demanding a freeze on council tax bills - and returned to well-trodden themes including Sunak “protecting his non-dom tax status” and the opposition’s perceived failure of the Conservative record on crime, house building and schools.

On the Labour frontbench, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves joined in the attacks on the PM - suggesting it was unlikely Sunak had “finally met some working class people” recently after he decided to fly by helicopter to get from London to Hampshire for a press call.

Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street (Photo: Getty)Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street (Photo: Getty)
Rishi Sunak leaves Downing Street (Photo: Getty)

‘Sir Flakey’ jibe

Sunak hit back with scripted quips of his own, calling Sir Keir “Sir Flakey” for flipflopping on issues like universal credit and tuition fees - and accused him of being “all politics and no action” with no concrete policies to speak of.

So far, so similar to recent PMQs exchanges between the two leaders - which are usually light on substance and rarely deviate from pre-prepared notes.  But there are two points worth highlighting.

A subdued Tory party

Firstly, Sunak’s backbenchers - and even some of his ministers - looked pretty subdued. Without question, a hefty local election defeat has bruised the Tories, with some MPs pondering whether their futures in Parliament are now in doubt. The PM didn’t directly address the election losses - as he did in the immediate aftermath of the vote - focusing instead on picking holes in Starmer’s record. By not acknowledging those losses in the chamber, his MPs seemingly didn’t feel they could give him their full-throated defence today.

Testing attack lines

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we got an early peek of one possible line of attack against Labour come the general election: the possibility of coalition government.  In a round of broadcast interviews yesterday, Starmer repeatedly refused to rule out a coalition with the Liberal Democrats - although he committed not to working with the SNP.

The “coalition of chaos” line was used to great effect by the Tories in 2015 to thwart Ed Miliband’s chance of entering Downing Street - and there was a flavour of this in one of Sunak’s (again, scripted) responses to Starmer today: “While he is busy plotting coalitions, we are getting on and delivering for the British people.”

If the polls suggest we’re heading for a hung parliament next year, you can see the appeal of Sunak promising stability - especially as it’s almost certain no party with more than a handful of MPs will go into coalition with the Conservatives next time round.  PMQs are a very useful testing ground for lines of attack - whether this one sticks remains to be seen.

Who won PMQs?

Despite both leaders once again sticking firmly to the script, Sunak had no real answers to the questions he was asked - meaning a win by default for Starmer who was on confident form.