Rishi Sunak faced prime minister’s questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons on Wednesday knowing that this would be the first real test of his mettle in high office.
If he performed poorly, or got stage fright, it would not have been career-ending. In fact, it would probably be an improvement on some of the contributions from his immediate predecessor, Liz Truss.
That said, after all the chaos and incompetence and humiliations in the chamber of recent times, the Tories — psychologically — needed something to cheer about.
Even a no-score draw would have sufficed. After all, the new levelling-up secretary Michael Gove said on Wednesday the aim of the new government was “to be as dull as possible”.
“Boring is back,” he said at a press awards event, his tongue not entirely wedged into his cheek.
In the end Sunak gave an assured performance at the despatch box, and held his nerve. During PMQs, he was able to respond to — or, to be more precise, deflect — most accusations Keir Starmer threw at him. The loudest cheers, for once, came not from the opposition benches.
Starmer’s focus of attack was always going to be Suella Braverman. In a political comeback that made Lazarus look like a laggard, she was reinstated as home secretary only six days after having to step down from the role.
Braverman had breached the ministerial code by sending sensitive government papers on immigration via her personal email to a person not authorised to receive them. That was John Hayes, who chairs the right-wing Common Sense Group in the Tory Party. She copied the same email to an address she thought was that of Hayes’s wife. But it turned out to be an unconnected third party who informed No 10.
The realpolitik of Braverman’s reinstatement was that she is the standard bearer for the right wing of the party and could bring many MPs from that side with her. Her price for supporting Sunak was getting her old job back.
When Starmer raised the issue, Sunak replied: “The home secretary made an error of judgment, she raised the matter and accepted the mistake.
“That’s why I was delighted to welcome her back into a united cabinet that brings stability and experience into the heart of the government.”
That was as much as he was prepared to say about it. Every time Starmer returned to it, Sunak parried. He refused to answer questions about civil service inquiries into the issues, or objections to her appointment, instead attacking Labour for its record on crime and immigration, and for having had Jeremy Corbyn as leader.
In the end, Starmer finished his contribution with a statement rather than questions. Sunak, he said, was “so weak he has done a grubby deal trading national security because he was afraid of losing another leadership election. There’s a new Tory at the top but, as always with them, party first and country second.”
The matter won’t lie there. Opposition MPs returned to it repeatedly in the Commons on Wednesday, to be met with a pro-forma answer. This issue over Braverman’s breach of the code is bound to raise its head again in the coming weeks and months.
The other focus of Starmer’s attack was the disconnect, the yawning gap, between Britain’s wealthiest politician and the poor who will be impacted by November’s fiscal statement.
The main tool for this was a secretly recorded video clip from affluent Tunbridge Wells where Sunak boasted to supporters how he diverted money allotted by Labour for deprived city areas in the North to rural constituencies like Tunbridge Wells.
It was obvious the new prime minister was prepared for this question. He immediately riposted there were deprived rural areas and deprived coastal areas all over the south, and not just in cities.
Certainly Sunak looks like he will adopt some of Gove’s “dull” strategy in his early months of government. The disposition of his government during its first day was low-key. Chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt said he was delaying the economic statement for 2½ weeks, until November.
This seems to be a smart move as it takes away the sense that the statement scheduled for next Monday was an “emergency budget”. It will give Sunak and his cabinet space to map out a more substantial response to the UK’s financial problem in a calmer atmosphere. Another sign of a more reasonable approach was his decision to call Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon soon after his appointment on Tuesday evening, after Truss had ignored the SNP leader completely throughout her premiership. Those early signs suggest his approach to Anglo-Irish relations will be closer to those of Theresa May than to her two unpredictable successors.