Tory crowd leaves early as Sunak and Starmer play out goalless draw at PMQs

City PowerPoint geek’s flickers of Boris-lite fail to ignite party more used to narcissistic fantasists

It only took a few hours. That was the length of time between Rishi Sunak looking ever so humble and sincere outside Downing Street on Tuesday morning as he promised to govern with “accountability, integrity and professionalism” and him appointing Suella Braverman as his home secretary just six days after she left government for breaking the ministerial code.

Rish! likes to present himself as a new breed of politician. The Goldman Sachs multi-millionaire who can be trusted to tell the truth. However uncomfortable that may be. The man with the golden voice. A saviour rising from the mean streets. But the reality is he’s not so different from any other Tory leader. Party before country. Self before party. Always open to any grubby backroom deal if it works to his advantage.

For him the equation was simple. Leaky Sue could have her job back – no questions asked – in return for her endorsement of him as party leader. Anything to edge out the threat of Boris Johnson’s return. And it had worked a treat. The Convict had melted away making all his supporters look stupid and Rish! had marched into No 10 unopposed. A coronation rather than an election.

Now was the time for the Tories to get a first glimpse of what they had bought. Or, in some cases, for what they had sold their souls. Day two of the ongoing Tory psychodrama and Sunak’s first prime minister’s questions. In July, Johnson had been the future once. In September it had been Liz Truss who had been the future once. Now there was no sign of either former prime minister in the Commons. Perhaps it will turn out they are on holiday.

Time then for the cabinet to inspect the damage. Michael Gove was the first to enter the Commons. He looked phlegmatic. Lost in thought. Well he might be. He’s been fired and rehired so often he knows that failure is the only guarantee. He seemed genuinely curious when Andrea Jenkyns started talking about her belief in a meritocracy during women and equalities questions. Many of the current Tory party – including Jenkyns – have gone a lot further than their talents would suggest.

Next in was Nadhim Zahawi. You might have thought he would have had the grace to look a bit sheepish – a tad embarrassed – at having switched sides so brazenly in last weekend’s manoeuvres. But his sense of entitlement is absolute. He genuinely believes he is irreplaceable. The only way is hubris. Then came Oliver Dowden. Squeaking with excitement at his return to the frontline. Raab just looked surprised. Then you would if your bodycount was in to double figures and you’d yet to be arrested. Psychokiller. Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Penny Mordaunt just looked sullen. Thinking of those missing handful of votes that could have taken the leadership election to the Tory members. They could have done almost anything. Thinking also of why she hadn’t pulled out a few hours earlier. Then she could have cosied up to Rish! and become foreign secretary. That error would haunt her for years. Last in was the shameless Leaky Sue. Dreaming of putting migrants on a plane. She has yet to find a rule that applies to her. Amazingly, she’s supposed to be a lawyer.

Finally the scene was set for the arrival of Sunak. Confected cheers rang round the chamber. Though not as many as you might expect for a new leader at his first PMQs. Usually there’s a barrage of goodwill and enforced enthusiasm. The new found unity in the Tory party was only skin deep. Wendy Morton, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Kit Malthouse – all newly returned to the backbenches – remained completely silent throughout. Jake Berry, the former party chairman, was absent. Missing, presumed disloyal. Last seen writing a tweet trashing Sunak.

Keir Starmer began by congratulating Sunak on becoming the first person of colour to become prime minister. It was a heartfelt gesture. It’s genuinely a big moment for the country. Then the Labour leader went on the attack. Had Leaky Sue been right to resign for breaking the ministerial code? And had senior civil servants raised objections to her reappointment? How could a threat to national security be home secretary?

Rish! was unable to answer this, resorting to an unintelligible word salad. Braverman had said sorry and besides she’d done her punishment, six days was more than long enough, though five would have been way too short and everyone deserved a second chance and it wasn’t as if it had been a very serious breach even though it clearly had been serious and she had lied about it but in any case Jeremy Corbyn.

It was like Boris-lite. Full of culture wars bluster but without the ability to draw his audience into his fantasies. Mostly because he doesn’t believe his own lies. Well, not enough of them. He’s too much the Goldman Sachs PowerPoint geek. At PMQs the Tories demand a full on narcissistic fantasist. Someone to tell them they are winners. Someone who will deliver a Promised Land.

Starmer moved on to the non-dom tax status of Sunak’s wife and him shovelling cash away from deprived areas in the north. “Yeah,” said Sunak triumphantly. “What you’ve got to remember is that the whole of the country is in a mess.” In hindsight he might think that saying the Tories have fucked up the whole of the UK isn’t quite the killer line he thinks it is. Even if it happens to be true.

The exchanges ended inconclusively. The Labour leader had exposed some obvious weaknesses, wounds that could be reopened at will at any time in the future. Sunak cannot escape his past. Though he had done enough to convince his backbenchers he would be better than Librium Liz. Then perhaps we all would. But it all petered out into a bloodless goalless draw. A result that both sides would probably have taken in advance. All new prime ministers get a free pass at their first PMQs – even Truss was rapturously received by the Tory press first time out – so there’s no point wasting too much energy.

There was just time for Rish! to say he was keeping to his leadership manifesto before blatantly ditching parts of it and refusing to confirm whether he would increase benefits in line with inflation. He also agreed that building 8,000 new homes would be a huge mistake. Why on earth do people imagine they have a right to somewhere to live? Then he just slipped away to relatively light applause. The Tories are a fickle bunch.

Leaky Sue also sneaked out just in time to avoid answering an urgent question on her rule breaking. So brave. An upholder of the highest standards. So it was left to the luckless Jeremy Quin to defend Braverman’s honour. In front of the three or four Tories who cared enough to stay. She was ever so sorry. She would never do it again. It had been the longest six days of her life. End of.

• This article was amended on 27 October 2022 to correct the spelling of Jeremy Quin’s name.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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