PMQs: Rishi Sunak challenged on mortgages and Boris Johnson’s honours at Prime Minister’s Questions
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After days of public infighting at the highest levels of the Conservative party, Sir Keir Starmer took the opportunity to punch the bruise at Prime Minister’s Questions - suggesting the arguments about Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list had taken Sunak’s eye off the ball of the UK economy.
While it’s a Westminster soap opera through and through, the row has laid bare deep divisions among the Tories. Johnson and his ally Nadine Dorries - who missed out on a peerage in that list - think Sunak interfered in it. The PM insists he didn’t - accusing his old boss of asking him to overrule the recommendations of a House of Lords panel responsible for vetting all honours. Johnson claims Sunak is “talking rubbish”.
Why should we care?
This saga matters politically because the PM is desperate to shake off the ghost of Johnson, now an ex-MP after his dramatic resignation last week who one pollster recently suggested had become less popular than Chinese President Xi Jinping and Phillip Schofield.
Knowing this, Starmer wants to keep the two bound together in the public’s mind - reinforcing a “them versus us” narrative. At PMQs, he pointed out that “those who threw a Downing Street party the night before the late Queen sat alone at her husband’s funeral will now receive awards from the King”. The message to voters: the Conservatives have let you down yet they’re rewarding their own for it.
Sunak was rebuked by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle for his reply - accusing Starmer of putting former Labour MP Tom Watson for a peerage even though he “spread vicious conspiracy theories” about a paedophile ring at Westminster. Watson apologised last year but the exchange shows the level of mudslinging we can expect (from both sides) when the next general election comes around.
There’s still huge uncertainty about when that election will be. It was widely expected sometime next year but there’ve been suggestions this week that Sunak might want to get ahead of bad economic news if the picture on mortgages doesn’t improve. Higher government borrowing costs are having a direct effect on mortgage rates - with hundreds of products removed from sale in recent weeks. As more people come to the end of fixed-term deals and suddenly find themselves facing an astronomical jump in living costs, would the PM rather go to the polls this autumn so any backlash from traditionally Conservative home-owning voters is contained?
The SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn used PMQs to quote Sunak’s own words from last summer’s Tory leadership contest back at him.
Mortgage rate rises, the PM said at the time, would “tip millions of people into misery and we’re going to have absolutely no chance of winning the next election”. Yesterday, Downing Street urged lenders to help out mortgage holders getting into financial difficulties because of these higher rates. You sense more significant interventions may have to follow.
Labour’s own troubles
It’s far from plain sailing for Labour at the moment either. Sunak drew attention to the party’s U-turn on a commitment to spend £28 billion on green industries each year of the next Parliament. Unions are concerned about plans to ban all new oil and gas licences in the North Sea. And The Guardian has reported this week that Labour will water down proposals mooted by Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson for universal free childcare - making it means-tested instead. The Conservatives say this proves that any policy idea their rivals produce isn’t worth the paper it’s written on (Tory party HQ is even selling Starmer-branded flip-flops to make the point).
But debates about policy are still very much being overshadowed by purely political arguments over peerages and cronyism. As a man who’s repeatedly promised to return integrity and propriety to government, Sunak was keen to point out several times today he “followed due process and convention” when it came to Johnson’s honours list. A similar statement at London Tech Week on Monday earned him a small round of applause from the audience. Yet the former PM is still dominating the conversation (arguably just the way Johnson likes it) - and there will likely be consequences for Sunak down the line if he can’t shake him off once and for all.