Politics Uncovered newsletter: a Greek tragedy, Starmer's best PMQs and slippery Hancock

This is the article-version of the Politics Uncovered newsletter from NationalWorld's politics editor Ralph Blackburn based in Westminster. You can sign up in the newsletter section.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures and Rishi Sunak. Credit: Getty/Kim MoggGreek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures and Rishi Sunak. Credit: Getty/Kim Mogg
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Elgin Marbles or Parthenon Sculptures and Rishi Sunak. Credit: Getty/Kim Mogg

As Rishi Sunak hopped on his Peloton bike this morning, he’ll be reflecting on a week where everything he tried to do to turn the dial in the polls backfired. It started in Home Office questions on Monday. I was in the press gallery of the House of Commons to watch as James Cleverly and other ministers had to answer questions primarily about the government’s disastrous Rwanda policy.

Cleverly and his fellow Home Office ministers ignored four separate questions from Tory MPs - including former Cabinet ministers - on whether the government would disapply or leave the European Convention on Human Rights and UN Refugee Convention if Rwanda flights are not allowed. These are some of the international treaties which the Supreme Court cited when ruling the Rwanda plan unlawful.

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The Prime Minister has tried to sound tough on migration to appease his backbenchers, but clearly is still reluctant to leave the ECHR given its role in the Good Friday Agreement and the UK’s trade deal with the EU. For more than two weeks, we’ve been promised that a new treaty will be signed with Rwanda, which the government says will stop the risk of asylum seekers being sent back to their home countries. Twinned with this, Sunak hopes Parliament will pass legislation which will say that Rwanda is a safe country. 

These still have not materialised, and this weekend it’s emerged that Britain will send a further £15 million to Rwanda to secure the trade deal - meaning the East African country will have received £155 million of taxpayers' money and there’s no guarantee that any flights will take off.

On top of that, Sunak found himself stuck in a diplomatic row entirely of his own making. We got hints that something might be about to unfold around the Elgin Marbles on Monday. Every weekday around noon political journalists based in Westminster get a briefing with a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, when we can ask any questions we want. 

Most of the time we get fairly straight-forward answers - “I haven’t spoken to the Prime Minister about this … I wouldn’t want to speculate on policy”. One political hack just asked casually when Sunak was due to meet Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and was told: “I don’t have anything to confirm at the moment.” This was odd because the day before the Greek PM had said on the BBC he was expecting to meet Sunak, adding that he hoped the Parthenon Sculptures, as the Greeks call them, would be returned. 

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The next plot twist was when Sunak cancelled his meeting with the Greek PM, over Mitsotakis’ comments to the BBC. It’s quite hard to understate how unusual this is for the UK Prime Minister to have a high-profile public spat with a NATO partner and ally - especially after the Greek leader had already met with Sir Keir Starmer. It was a bizarre move from Sunak, who ended up looking petulant and unstatesmanlike.

And if Sunak hoped there was some sort of culture war to prise open in regards to the marbles then he’s clearly wrong. The problem is that the British public don’t seem to care. YouGov polling found that 49% of Britons think the Parthenon Sculptures should be kept in Greece while just 15% think they should just stay in the UK.

This led to what was probably Keir Starmer’s best PMQs so far against Sunak. In recent weeks, the Labour leader has appeared a bit wooden, however Wednesday’s session was packed full of gags. Starmer saved his best line until last: “It’s ironic that the Prime Minister has suddenly taken such a great interest in Greek culture.

"He has the reverse Midas touch- everything he touches turns to … maybe the Home Secretary can help me out with this.” Afterwards, hacks asked a Labour spokesman if Starmer had a new joke writer. No, just a rich vein of material he told us. If you missed the Home Secretary joke, see last week’s newsletter for an explanation. 

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And then, for those of us on the Brexit beat, the news kept coming. Just hours after EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had told Politico that the UK should rejoin the bloc to “fix” Brexit, fresh polling came out to show that Britons are quite keen on the single market. 

Seven in 10 Britons support a closer relationship with the EU while 57% want the UK to rejoin the single market, and 54% of people think that Brexit is not done. This very much does not tally with Labour or Conservative policy - perhaps this will come back to bite Sunak and Starmer?

For the rest of the week, I had the joy of watching Matt Hancock try to abdicate himself from any responsibility for the government’s failures over Covid. Apparently he told Boris Johnson to lock down earlier, in a call which has no notes and was not mentioned in his own book. He also revealed he didn’t bother reading the minutes of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) until mid February. Despite this the former Health Secretary was desperate to put himself on the right side of history.

Story of the week: Landlords are using open banking to secretly monitor their tenants’ bank accounts for up to six months, campaign group MedConfidential has claimed. This came to my attention as the government plans to widen the technology to multiple industries through the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill (DPDI Bill).

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Quote of the week - “it is important that those who make the rules abide by them”: Matt Hancock speaking about his illicit smooch with Gina Coladangelo to the Covid Inquiry. This was one of the many examples of people in government breaking the rules they brought in during the Covid pandemic. Hancock, who was forced to resign as Health Secretary, admitted that this could have affected the public’s adherence to the rules.

Coming up next week - Boris Johnson: If two days of Matt Hancock wasn’t enough, then on Wednesday and Thursday Johnson will be giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry. It will likely concentrate on criticism of his governance, which has come up a lot so far, as well as questions about Partygate.

This article is also sent out as a newsletter every Sunday morning. You can sign up here to Politics Uncovered, and you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here.

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