Rishi Sunak faces an immigration interrogation by Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions

NationalWorld’s politics editor Tom Hourigan gives his assessment of this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions

Since he returned from the G7 summit in Japan at the weekend, Rishi Sunak has had to do a fair bit of firefighting in his own ranks.

He spent days mulling over whether to investigate his Home Secretary Suella Braverman for asking civil servants to investigate the possibility of her doing a private speed awareness course. And the long shadow of his former boss Boris Johnson has reappeared after it emerged the Cabinet Office had referred the ex-Prime Minister to the police for new alleged Covid breaches.

So Sunak was probably ever so slightly relieved that Sir Keir Starmer didn’t take him to task on any of that at Prime Minister’s Questions (except for a few speeding jokes) - focusing instead on immigration. Even though figures out tomorrow (May 25) are expected to show a significant rise in net migration - the gap between the number of people entering the UK legally and the number leaving - the Conservatives are relatively happy to play on this pitch because they believe Labour is and always has been deeply divided on the issue. Some of Labour’s core voters in big cities baulk at the idea of big crackdowns and those on the left of the party have warned against tough rhetoric and what they see as a “Tory-lite” agenda.

Starmer on the attack

Despite that, Starmer feels there’s an opportunity to exploit as he continues building a narrative ahead of the next general election that the Conservatives are repeatedly failing to match their words with action.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister stood on three Tory manifestos, each one promised to reduce immigration. Each promise broken.” It’s worth saying Sunak hasn’t felt able recently to even repeat the pledge made in the 2019 manifesto - which vowed overall immigration numbers would “come down” in the wake of Brexit.

Sir Keir Starmer used Prime Minister’s Questions to interrogate Rishi Sunak’s immigration policy Sir Keir Starmer used Prime Minister’s Questions to interrogate Rishi Sunak’s immigration policy
Sir Keir Starmer used Prime Minister’s Questions to interrogate Rishi Sunak’s immigration policy

Sunak reminded Starmer that on Monday, the government announced it would remove the right of international students to bring dependents to live with them in the UK. He added that one of the Labour leader’s own frontbenchers said having an immigration target was “insensible”.

But strain started creeping into the Prime Minister’s argument. In a question about workforce skills and training, he pointed to reforms that meant young people in Britain were “now the best readers in the Western world” - an important statistic for sure but not one that will address worker shortages in farming or food production.

A vital measure of success for Sunak

Make no mistake, this is an issue that’s pivotal for Sunak’s future political prospects. While net migration figures don’t include people who’ve reached the UK illegally, he’s made “stopping the boats” one of his five priorities for 2023 - so he needs to be seen as trustworthy on the issue at large. Some on the right of his party, who are becoming even more agitated now Boris Johnson’s been referred to the police again, don’t think the PM is doing enough to bring immigration down. And Tory voters are really invested in results - YouGov polling shows only the economy is a bigger priority for them.

We’ll see tomorrow how Sunak responds to the latest numbers - and what he plans to do about them. If he’s found wanting, and his approach comes under further attack (even from his own side), you get the feeling this is a bruise Starmer will be willing to punch again.