PMQs verdict: Infected blood focus contrasts feverish
election speculation

PMQs verdict: Infected blood focus contrasts feverish election speculation

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Is Rishi Sunak about to call a snap general election?

That was the question boggling minds at Westminster this afternoon as the prime minister rose to the despatch box to fend off Keir Starmer’s weekly probing. The still-rampant speculation has been fuelled by a few sources: the first is the news today that inflation has fallen to 2.3 per cent, meaning the rate of price rises is now mightily close to the Bank of England’s 2 per cent target. It’s welcome news for Sunak, who has made lowering inflation a defining mission of his premiership.

But on top of this, and perhaps more strikingly, No 10 is today refusing to engage with the election rumours — it comes in stark contrast to previous SW1 speculation fits, when the prospect of a national poll has been fast ruled out by Sunak’s apparatchiks. It has also emerged in recent hours that the cabinet will meet at 4.15 pm today for an unspecified purpose, after which the prime minister will hold his weekly audience with the King. Curiouser and curiouser.

Despite this febrile backdrop, prime minister’s questions began with a rare show of cross-party unity as “bionic MP” Craig Mackinlay entered the chamber. The South Thanet MP returned to the commons today for the first time after suffering a life-threatening episode of sepsis which led to the amputation of his hands and feet. He was greeted with rapturous applause from MPs of all parties, which is technically banned under House rules. “We don’t allow clapping”, said the Speaker, “but this is an exception!”

After a short statement from the Speaker, both Sunak and Starmer paid tribute to the emotional Mackinlay, with the PM hailing his “incredible resilience”. The Labour leader reflected on the Conservative MP’s “courage and determination” as well as his “deep sense of service”. “It is an example for all of us”, Starmer concluded.

Starmer today, with his reflections on Mackinlay’s return and subsequent questioning, sought to assume the role of subdued but thoughtful statesman. Indeed, in his probing of Sunak, the Labour leader refused at every turn to veer into political point-scoring, focussing entirely on the infected blood scandal. This, of course, had the happy consequence of steering attention away from the inflation news today, which was clearly Sunak’s preferred topic; that is, based on the planted question courtesy of Conservative MP Eliot Colburn. The PM responded to Colburn by insisting his “plan is working”, naturally.

Starmer’s first question called for a “duty of candour” to be enshrined in law, which would compel public authorities and officials to tell the truth and proactively cooperate with official investigations. Sunak responded that he would “take time to fully digest” the infected blood inquiry’s findings, published on Monday, but clarified that the government was “sympathetic” to the recommendations made.

Starmer later asserted that the “very culture of the NHS needs to change” — which, even in light of the infected blood scandal, is a striking statement from a Labour leader. The prime minister agreed with Starmer’s suggestion, adding that the NHS had “failed people, it let them down”.

The closest Starmer came to making a political point was when he referred to his time as director of public prosecutions, claiming his experience leading a state institution had convinced him of the need for reform. This drew a chorus of groans from the Conservative benches, which have grown tired of Starmer’s reflections on his previous life as a civil servant.

But it was when SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn took to his feet that the commons press gallery really took notice — in anticipation of some election commentary, of course. Noting that “speculation is rife”, Flynn duly obliged, asking the PM to give a clear answer to the question of whether there could be a summer contest.

I suppose it’s worth quoting Sunak’s answer in full: “As I have said repeatedly to him, there is, spoiler alert, going to be a general election in the second half of this year and at that moment the British people will in fact see the truth about the honourable gentleman opposite me [Starmer] because that will be the choice at the next election.

“A party that is not able to say to the country what they would do, a party that would put at risk our hard-earned economic stability, or the Conservatives that are delivering a secure future for our United Kingdom.”

Fans of election speculation will recognise that the PM declined the opportunity to rule anything out.

Following Flynn, Conservative MP Danny Kruger entirely expunged the session’s non-partisan feel with a roaring broadside against Labour’s record in power. Kruger blasted: “In 1997, the public voted in what would be a sort of continuity Conservative government. The same policies, just with different faces. Instead what they got was record immigration, constitutional vandalism and a broken economy”.

For those reasons, the “last thing” the UK needs is another Labour government because the economy is “roaring back to life”, Kruger closed.

“My honourable friend gives a superb and passionate economic diagnosis and he is right” — was Sunak’s response.

Lunchtime briefing

‘Everything is heading in the right direction’, says Rishi Sunak after inflation fall

Lunchtime soundbite

‘We don’t comment on reshuffle speculation’

—  Downing Street declines to repeat the PM’s previous commitment that Jeremy Hunt will be chancellor at the time of the general election — amid speculation that a reshuffle could be precede an announcement on election timing.

Now try this…

MPs give “bionic MP” Craig Mackinlay standing ovation as he returns to parliament
PoliticsHome reports.

Britain’s fast-improving economy won’t save the Tories
Politico’s Stefan Bosnia and Geoffrey Smith write that it’s not the economy any more, stupid, for the struggling Conservatives.

No 10 neglecting popular MPs, laments minister in leaked memo
A memo by Johnny Mercer, a cabinet minister, seen by The Times, shows frustration with the prime minster’s hogging of the campaign spotlight. (Paywall)

On this day in …:

Which Conservative MPs are first out the gate for the 2024 ‘chicken run’?

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