Did we have the next general election in a microcosm at this week’s prime minister’s questions? Keir Starmer hammered Rishi Sunak on NHS waiting lists, migration levels and the rising tax burden. Sunak hit back by saying that Starmer had met a foreign leader and listened to Beethoven. If it was a microcosm, there might actually be a landslide around the corner – this may well have been Starmer’s most comfortable win yet.
Admittedly, the Labour leader did start with a couple of Elgin Marbles jokes so heavily signposted they may well have been 30m high, decked out in garish neon and placed on the Las Vegas Strip. “In an effort to hide from his failures, the prime minister spent this week arguing about an ancient relic that only a tiny majority of the British public have any interest in,” Sir Keir intoned solemnly. Before adding: “Mr Speaker, that’s enough about the Tory Party!!!!!!”. (My exclamation marks.)
He followed this up with his response to Sunak’s convoluted attempt to explain how his migration policy was proving a splendid success with: “Never mind the British Museum, it’s the prime minister who’s obviously lost his marbles!!!!”.
But it was Sunak’s cack-handed last-minute cancellation of his meeting with the Greek prime minister which really allowed Starmer to put him on the ropes.
“Of course, we’re always happy to discuss important topics of substance with our allies like tackling illegal migration or indeed strengthening our security, but when it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future but rather to grandstand and relitigate issues of the past it wasn’t appropriate,” Sunak whined of his cancellation.
“I discussed with the Greek prime minister the economy, security, immigration,” responded Starmer. “I also told him we wouldn’t change the law regarding the marbles. It’s not that difficult, prime minister.” The camera fell on Sunak, who looked sad and small. It felt damning.
The prime minister then lashed out wildly. “No-one will be surprised that he’s backing an EU country over Britain,” he said of Starmer. “Just this last week he was asked which song best sums up the Labour Party. What did he come up with? Well, Mr Speaker, he showed his true colours and chose Ode To Joy. Literally the anthem of the European Union. And he will back Brussels over Britain every single time!”.
So there you go – meeting a fellow NATO member foreign leader is somehow backing Brussels over Britain (one for his new foreign secretary, who last week said he wanted the UK to be a “friend, neighbour and partner” of the EU), and listening to Beethoven is sinister. Sunak’s favourite song, incidentally is Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, so make of that what you will.
“Is he now saying that meeting the Greek PM is supporting the EU?” said Starmer. “Rather than deal with facts he’s prosecuting a one-man war on reality.”
But it was a cover version of a Labour classic which hit hardest. In June 1993 John Smith taunted John Major as “the man with the reverse Midas touch”. Today Starmer taunted Major’s spiritual successor: “It is ironic that he’s suddenly taken such an interest in Greek culture when he’s clearly become the man with the reverse Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to… maybe the home secretary can help me out here.”
It was a good gag. Sunak looked sad again. Home secretary James Cleverly looked like he always looks, which is the sort of man who might challenge you to a throwing-a-shoe-over-a-pub contest on a night out. Sunak rose to attack Starmer, but his microphone cut off for the final three words of his answer, leaving the prime minister to whisper to the chamber: “Britain isn’t listening.” No. No they’re not.