A prime minister’s questions before a major fiscal statement is very much a case of before the Lord Mayor’s Show – it’s busy, but MPs are there purely to reserve their seat for the main event, like when Sam Fender supported the Rolling Stones at Hyde Park this summer. Traditionally the two main party leaders treat it like a pre-season friendly – few studs-up challenges – while anonymous backbenchers use the free pass to ask the prime minister to pay tribute to the winners of an under-11s hockey tournament in their constituency.
Keir Starmer used the opportunity today to focus on the NHS, noting that it was not included among the five new priorities Rishi Sunak announced on Monday to replace the previous five priorities he hasn’t delivered on yet. “Did he forget the NHS?” asked the Labour leader in a five-word question, eyebrow raised like John Le Mesurier.
Sunak responded in his stock answer on the NHS, which is that it is doing incredibly well and, anyway, it’s worse in Wales and the bits in England which aren’t working are probably the fault of Labour as well. “Just weeks after becoming prime minister we injected record funding into the NHS and into social care and we also unveiled the first-ever long-term workforce plan in the NHS’s 75-year history!” he cheered. Starmer pointed out that 7.8 million people are currently on waiting lists; Sunak decided that “I guess the question is, when he talks about targets on waiting lists, I really do hope that the Labour Welsh Government aren’t listening.” Which wasn’t the question or, really, a question at all.
And that was pretty much it from the main players. Elsewhere, Jason McCartney (Con, Colne Valley) rose to laud the “£64 million of levelling-up cash for Huddersfield Market and the Penistone rail line upgrade and the West Yorkshire investment zone”. “Will the prime minister continue to invest in West Yorkshire and come and see and see some of these fantastic…,” he began to ask, before his verbosity tested even speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s famed patience and he was cut off. “What great news! What great news!,” applauded Sunak, although it was unclear if this was in reference to the Penistone rail line upgrade or windbag McCartney being silenced.
Daniel Zeichner (Lab, Cambridge) did what almost amounted to an actual funny by an MP, asking about Sunak’s recent love-in with Silicon Valley’s chief bro Elon Musk. “What exactly did the prime minister think he might learn from an unelected super-rich individual who had taken over a once-successful organisation and plunged it into a death spiral?” he chortled as Radio 4 satire bookers reached for their phones. Sunak found it less amusing. “What the rest of the world saw was the UK playing a lead in defining the regulations to a technology that is gonna transform how we live,” he insisted, wrongly.
But if this PMQs was to be remembered for anything, it was for a remark which won’t be recorded on the pages of Hansard. Alex Cunningham (Lab, Stockton North) asked a very simple question: “Why are 34% of children in my constituency living in poverty?”. And one MP, perhaps unaware Parliament has microphones – it being an innovation only 73 years old – could very audibly be heard responding: “Because it’s a shithole.” Perhaps it’s for the best that, in this session at least, MPs were focused on something else entirely.