Voices: Sunak may have briefly united the Tory party, but he certainly hasn’t fumigated it

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A new dawn. All change. Everything’s going to be different from now on. The past is behind us. That was the vibe anyway, as Rishi Sunak made his way in to his first ever Prime Minister’s Questions.

We’ll come on to that in just a second, but the fact that directly after the session, his brand new home secretary Suella Braverman had to sneak out and pretend she had somewhere else to be – rather than answer questions about why she’d been forced to resign for breaching national security six days ago – did reveal that maybe the Sunak vibe shift hasn’t been as complete as he might have liked.

They cheered their new demigod as he made his way to the despatch box. The cheers were loud but, as a point of fact, markedly less loud than the cheers for when, for example, Boris Johnson had to come to the despatch box on multiple occasions to apologise for not knowing about the existence of various parties he had himself attended. Another reason to ponder whether maybe the Tory party is not as transformed as it hopes.

It doesn’t matter very much, PMQs. No one lives or dies, wins or loses by what happens at it, but it does offer a glimpse down the road to come, and it looks wearyingly familiar. Sunak really does seem to think he can call Labour soft on crime, despite their being led by the country’s former chief prosecutor. He really does seem to think that he can brand him a closet Corbynista, despite Starmer having kicked Corbyn out of the party. Maybe this stuff works, but it doesn’t seem to.

On this evidence, it’s certainly easier to get away with it when you’re Boris Johnson, which is to say when you have purposefully unshackled yourself from reality after long decades of relentless lying. Johnson styled himself as a joker, so becoming a complete joke kind of suited him. Rishi Sunak is trying to make himself look stern and serious, so coming out with the palpably ridiculous doesn’t really work for him.

It didn’t take long for Starmer to deploy his chief weapon, namely on quite why he has brought Suella Braverman back to the home office six days after her sacking. It’s not an easy one, this, because Sunak’s answer is obvious and arguably commendable. A deal was done with Braverman to keep Boris Johnson out, and it worked. It’s just that he can’t come out and say it. So what he can do is waffle on about what Suella Braverman’s going to be doing at the home office, which is “controlling immigration”, apparently.

There is a small amount of context to be found here. Which is that when Braverman was sacked, she pretended it had been because of a row about immigration numbers, which Liz Truss recognised needed to be allowed to increase in order to grow the economy. Sunak wants to grow the economy as well, he knows how important it is, but he’s also got to pretend he doesn’t want to – to keep Braverman and co happy – and therein lies his central problem.

It also doesn’t help that Sunak is now prime minister despite having lost a very long audition for the job barely two months ago. As he became more desperate to win, he did more and more stupid things, which didn’t work but which also can’t be erased.

It didn’t take Keir Starmer long to bring up the notorious Tunbridge Wells video, in which Sunak bragged about having diverted money from “deprived urban areas” to “places like this” – ie Tunbridge Wells (although he also defended his remarks, saying he was making the point that “deprivation exists right across our country”).

As an aside, that 30-second video is the only time in five years that my Turkish barber, who vaguely knows what I do for a living, and who doesn’t speak all that much English, has ever spoken to me about anything to do with politics, so enraged was he by it.

Sunak’s defence of this was quite something. He has previously explained that, actually, not all deprived areas are “urban” and what he meant was that actually there are deprived areas everywhere. And where that led were to truly remarkable scenes, in which Sunak listed, one by one, the various types of deprived areas to be found in Britain today while his MPs cheered them in turn.

Deprived rural areas! YAY! Deprived coastal areas! HURRAH! Deprived villages! YIPPEE! Deprived mountains and rivers! FANTASTIC!

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One or two of his backbenchers did start to look slightly uncertain as this went on. That maybe, you know, they shouldn’t be sitting there, having been in government 12 years, enthusiastically cheering the sheer geographical and topographical range of deprivation they had created. But they’d started now, so how could they stop?

If Sunak’s arrival marks a return to the very recent past, of trading boring blows about Corbyn, he will have to hope, very hard, that it is sufficient to turn around a staggering poll deficit. And he will also have to come up with some better arguments. At one point he told Keir Starmer, with as much pantomime sarcasm as he could manage, that “the party opposite has finally worked out that spending has to be paid for”.

That plain vanilla stuff might have worked once upon a time, but when you’re only in the job because your predecessor very publicly detonated your own reputation for managing the public finances, then you are rather deeper in the mire than you might realise.

And yes, when following you out the door at the end is your own home secretary, scurrying away from accountability about her own actions, it’s hard to avoid the nauseating sensation that the new regime really does smell a lot like everything that’s gone before.