Keir Starmer has labelled Rishi Sunak “the blancmange prime minister” after mandatory housebuilding targets were dropped under pressure from Tory MPs, in another policy change forced on the government by backbenchers in recent weeks.
Again using prime minister’s questions to attack Sunak as weak and unable to stand up to his MPs, Starmer said the government could have pushed through its housing plans with Labour support, but instead scuppered hopes of boosting construction levels.
“The Conservative party promised the country it would build 300,000 houses a year,” the Labour leader began. “This week, without asking a single voter, the prime minister broke that promise by scrapping mandatory targets. What changed?”
While the amended policy came as a result of threats from up to 100 MPs to back a rebel amendment to the levelling-up bill that would have ended compulsory local targets for new homes, Sunak sought to present the change as a deliberate choice.
“We are protecting the green belt,” he said, to Labour jeers. “We are investing millions to develop brownfield sites. And we’re providing support and protection for local neighbourhood plans.”
Starmer replied by asking Sunak whether he genuinely believed Tory rebels were cheering him on because he was “going to build more homes”.
“Pull the other one,” the Labour leader said. “I’ll tell him what changed – his backbenchers threatened him and, as always, the blancmange prime minister wobbled. He did a grubby deal with a handful of his MPs and sold out the aspirations of those who want to own their own home. Was it worth it?”
Sunak accused Starmer of “engaging in the petty personality politics”, and repeated his insistence that the government was “delivering what I said we would do”.
He added: “We’re protecting the character of local communities, we’re cracking down on land banking and irresponsible developers, and we’re giving people a greater say in their decisions.”
Starmer noted warnings from Conservative MPs and commentators that scrapping the targets could result in a plunge in the number of homes being built.
“Last week I offered him Labour votes to pass these housing targets, because this is bigger than politics.” he said. “Why would he rather cripple housebuilding than work with us to get those targets through?”
Sunak was, Starmer said, “too weak to stand up to his own side, on behalf of the country”, noting that the prime minister had also changed his plans on another area after backbench pressure, ending the de facto ban on new onshore windfarms in England.
“Actually I agree with that one, but is there no issue on which he won’t give into his backbenchers?” Starmer said.
Sunak responded by seeking to change the subject, asking Starmer whether he would condemn rail strikes scheduled to take place next week and then over Christmas.