PMQs scorecard: Sunak gets nasty on eve of Starmer’s by-election nightmare

Prime minister’s questions: a shouty, jeery, very occasionally useful advert for British politics. Here’s what you need to know from the latest session in POLITICO’s weekly run-through.

What’s going on: Wednesday’s shouting match, sorry, debate comes on the eve of the Rochdale by-election — where Labour have had to withdraw their own candidate amid a row over anti-semitism. The Tories haven’t had a peaceful week, though, with former deputy party chairman Lee Anderson under fire for saying “Islamists” had “got control of” London mayor Sadiq Khan. So this will be a balanced and sensible session … right? 

What did they fight about: After scrapping for a while, the Labour leader and prime minister got into a proper fight about … who had the worst predecessor. Keir Starmer took aim at former Prime Minister Liz Truss, who he said has taken to “slagging off and undermining Britain at every opportunity,” and asked why Sunak is “allowing her to stand as a Tory MP at the next election.” Truss has been in hot water after remaining silent on a panel where far-right activist Tommy Robinson was described as a “hero.”

In the blue corner: Sunak responded to Starmer’s comments by saying the Labour boss “sat there as antisemitism ran rife through his party,” under former Leader Jeremy Corbyn. He went as far to describe Starmer as “spineless, hopeless, and utterly shameless” for his former support of Corbyn.

You’re welcome: Look we’re not saying this POLITICO piece was bang on the money but, you know…

Ouch pt. 2: Sunak’s speechwriters would have been rubbing their hands together with glee with the Rochdale row. Speaking about candidates on the ballot tomorrow, Sunak said (kind of contradictorily) “despite three ex-Labour candidates, [Starmer] can’t back a single one of them. We expel antisemites, he makes them Labour candidates.”

He’s not taking a break: Sunak said the Conservative Party has a “proud tradition” of diversity. And Starmer, he charged, “can only champion men from North London.”

In the red corner: Starmer did have his share of pops, saying Sunak “has lost control of his party” to the “tin foil hat brigade” and “extremists who wrecked the economy.”

He added: “When will he stand up to them and end the pathetic spectacle of a Tory Party that used to try and beat [Nigel] Farage, and is now giving up and dancing to his tune instead?”

Don’t forget the dad jokes: Sunak didn’t totally forget his mission to pretend to be funny and normal. Labour’s Anna McMorrin raised that “this last weekend the PM posed for photographs with a group that shares extremist conspiracy theories about climate change and campaigns against net zero,” to which Sunak replied: “That’s no way to talk about the Welsh farming community.” 

Totally non-scientific scores on the door: This was a nasty debate. Gotcha moments and dad jokes were replaced with straight-up character assassinations. Rishi Sunak gets 5/10, having gotten personal in a way that’ll surely generate headlines. Starmer trudges through on 4/10, having used less ammunition (but maybe kept some dignity.)

Concern for how much nastier this will get as we move closer to an election: 100/10.