Sunak unconvincingly comes out swinging at PMQs before SNP pile-on | John Crace

No one can accuse Rishi Sunak of not being a fast learner. At his first three prime minister’s questions, Rish! was hopelessly outgunned. He looked and sounded like an out of his depth sixth-former. But at some point over the past few days, Sunak got hold of a Goldman Sachs assertiveness training manual. “How to appear pushy and confident when you’re actually dying inside.” Which turned Wednesday’s exchanges into an exercise in cosplay.

Still, the Tory benches seemed happy enough with their leader’s inauthenticity. Any improvement and all that. The backbenchers gave Rish! the odd half-hearted cheer – about as far as any Conservative MP will go in support of Sunak these days, given the circumstances – while Dominic Raab was positively ecstatic as his boss sat down next to him. Although that could have been because he had just heard that an establishment figure had been appointed to investigate the multiple bullying complaints against him. What a stroke of luck!

Buoyed up by the knowledge that there was no chance of Keir Starmer exploiting the tensions between him and Jeremy Hunt after the chancellor briefed a Swiss-style deal with the EU to the Sunday papers – Labor is as sworn to secrecy as the Tories with regard to Brexit – Rish! went out swinging. Come on then if you think you’re hard enough, he squeaked. But please love me. It wasn’t particularly convincing. His need to be liked is overpowering. But better than getting trampled on.

The Labour leader had opened with a few thoughts about the World Cup – he wasn’t about to be outfootballed by a prime minister who didn’t really give a toss about the game – before changing tack and demanding to know why the UK had the lowest growth in the G7. This one could run and run. It may get boring week after week, but Sunak and the Tories have no plausible answer. At least not one they’re prepared to mouth out loud.

“Erm,” said Rish! If you went back to 2010, then you could say we were third in the list. Starmer ignored him and pointed to the OECD table that had the UK 38th out of 38 for the next two years. Sunak looked a bit panicky. He hadn’t yet got to the bit in the Goldman Sachs manual on dealing with damning statistics. Maybe he will have mastered that by next week.

Yeahbutnobutyeahbutno. Maybe the Labor leader had been looking at the table upside down. From where he was looking, the UK was in a world-beating first place. Or maybe not. So, how about the UK had actually been doing quite well at one point this year. Why couldn’t we all just close our eyes and concentrate on enjoying that one day in April when things hadn’t been so bad. Typical Labor to want to think about how people might pay their bills in the next 24 months. It was that kind of negativity that was bringing the UK down.

After that it was all insult-throwing from both men. Neither of whom sounded entirely comfortable in their appointed shouty roles. But Starmer’s jabs landed better. Sunak always looks as if he wishes he could disappear whenever his wife’s non-dom status is mentioned. Which is why it gets brought up every week.

All Rish! could manage was to call the Labor leader an “opportunist” – pots and kettles and all that – and to insist that he alone had a plan for growth. Which is where he rather fell apart. Because even the Confederation of British Industry thinks he’s busted. More than that, the NHS is in crisis, we’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and Sunak is too weak to get his own planning bill through the Commons. None of which is going to get better anytime soon. Maybe it’s time for the Goldman Sachs manual on a dignified retreat.

The rest of the session was dominated by Scotland. The SNP leader, Ian Blackford, accepted the supreme court ruling that the Scottish parliament could not unilaterally call another independence referendum. That was a legal point, he said. But where was the democracy? Even now he could hear triumphalism in unionist voices.

Except there wasn’t really any triumphalism. There might have been under Boris Johnson or even Theresa May. But Sunak is another breed. He was just desperate for the Scots to get back on board and feel the UK love. The Scots had tried to go it alone but it hadn’t quite worked out. So why didn’t they just give the marriage a second chance? He was sure we had a future together. Two hearts were better than one. Two hearts could get the job done.

None of which cut much ice with Blackford. He observed that the SNP had won eight elections, which surely gave them a mandate. Sunak couldn’t even command a mandate of Tory party members. Rish! blushed his way into a shame spiral. He’s very touchy about having never won an election. Please, please, can we just get on, he begged.

Cue a pile-on from the six SNP MPs who had managed to get their way on to the order paper. All of whom asked variations of the same questions as Blackford. How could it be a voluntary union if there was no way of leaving it? Sunak was again eager for them to share his enthusiasm for the union. It was what the Scots really wanted. Deep down. The pursuit of independence was false consciousness. All that was needed was to admit that a referendum was a false dawn.

This was too much for May. She had had enough of trying to make the Scots feel good about having lost their case in the supreme court. She personally spoke to every Scot and knew that most of them did not want to leave the union. So the SNP should just bugger off and start putting the people of Scotland first. It was a view.

The outrage continued for another 45 minutes as the speaker had granted an urgent question on the decision. Many MPs merely repeated what they had said earlier. The SNP’s Pete Wishart cut to the chase. Under what circumstances would a second referendum be granted? Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary, could barely conceal his irritation. Basically, we would need to go back to 2014. Time travel. That was it. He couldn’t see any other way there could be a consensus. The computer says no. So why didn’t the SNP just stop pestering him? The charmless offensive.

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