No smoke but plenty of fire in House of Commons as UK’s general election debate takes shape

Rishi Sunak’s strengths but also his weaknesses were on show in Westminster this week

Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak isn’t known for hitting zingers at the despatch box, but he fired one past Labour leader Keir Starmer into the top corner on Wednesday, the first time they faced off in the House of Commons for almost a month.

As they jousted for the first prime minister’s questions (PMQs) since parliament returned from recess, some of the battle lines for the UK general election that is expected later this year also became clearer.

Starmer opened his grilling of Sunak with a jibe over the tell-all book released this week by Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, who led a seven-week reign of chaos in 2022. The Labour leader joked he had a “rare unsigned copy” of the relentlessly-publicised memoir. Behind him, his embattled deputy leader Angela Rayner hooted with laughter, enjoying a moment of respite from the pressure she is under due to a police investigation into her personal affairs that followed Tory complaints.

Then came Sunak’s sweetly struck response, which channelled widespread incredulity in Westminster at Starmer’s insistence that he doesn’t need to see a copy of the professional financial opinion that Rayner claims puts her in the clear. Sunak advised the Labour leader to spend less time reading Truss’s book and more time reading his deputy leader’s tax advice. The Tory backbenches have little to cheer about these days, but their rapturous reaction suggested they enjoyed that one. Even Starmer grinned. If it was a snooker game, he’d have tapped the table.


It has been a strange political week for Sunak, one that has put on show some of his technocratic strengths but also exposed his political weaknesses.

His set piece Rwanda immigration deportation plan is close to becoming law, although its passage through the House of Lords may slip into next week. On Tuesday the House of Commons voted through his landmark Bill to effectively ban smoking for future generations. Sunak might yet look back on this as another crowning achievement if he is turfed out of office at the election. Yet in the free vote he gave his party, half of his own MPs chose not to back the smoking plan, including frontbenchers such as Kemi Badenoch; the business secretary was among 57 Tories who voted against it.

The Bill passed only with the help of Labour, making the prime minister appear weak. Sunak’s decision to give Tories a free vote while appealing for their support also resulted in his party appearing divided while, in contrast, Labour whipped its MPs to put on a united front. These are the sort of seemingly naive political miscalculations from Downing Street that have many Conservative MPs fearing Sunak can lead them only to disaster in the upcoming election.

Back at PMQs, Starmer reminded voters that it was the Tories, albeit under Truss, who almost crashed the UK economy 18 months ago with £45 billion of unfunded tax cuts. Polls suggest this argument does cut through with UK voters, who remember the chaos. In a sign that Labour now plans to deploy a similar charge over Sunak’s plan to boost Britons’ pay packets by abolishing national insurance, Starmer argued it would cost £46 billion and was, effectively, another unfunded tax cut because it was unclear how Sunak’s government would finance it.

Starmer pressed Sunak three times on whether he would pay for the measure by either raising other taxes, cutting spending on public services or cutting pensions, as he suggested there was no other way to make the sums add up. Sunak dodged the question and retorted that it was Labour who would put up taxes.

The Tories fighting dirty as per their pursuit of Rayner; Starmer charging the Tories over the chaos under Truss; jibes over unfunded tax cuts; and worries in Sunak’s divided party over his political nous – these are issues that arose this week and which will also, it appears likely, be at the fore when the next election comes.