Why Rishi Sunak chose the occasion of today’s PMQs to take a petty swipe at the leader of a friendly nation ultimately confirmed Sir Keir Starmer’s withering observation that the prime minister does indeed have the “reverse Midas touch”.
Even before PMQs, Sunak’s “reverse Midas touch” was being revealed in committee hearings which heard first hand of the government’s complete incompetence in handling the immigration issue with a senior civil servant admitting they have no idea of the whereabouts of 17,000 asylum seekers whose cases have been withdrawn.
Sunak has made many public promises. They normally come in fives. Last year, way back in June when he was losing in the race to become PM against Liz Truss – who let’s not forget was eventually beaten by lettuce – he promised to eradicate the backlog of almost 100,000 asylum seekers waiting for an initial decision on their application.
Today, MPs wanted to know about his government’s progress in dealing with the backlog. The race to clear the numbers has seen the number of asylum case workers almost triple and their productivity double – to an average eight decisions per month – over the last year.
MPs on the Home Affairs committee wanted to know how this is being achieved.
Amazingly, as the senior civil admitted, the best way to get the numbers down is to simply make them magically disappear.
Some 17,300 applications have been simply withdrawn and removed from the system in the year to September – a quadrupling compared to the previous 12 months.
Particularly effective new guidance was recently given to case workers providing “clarity” about when a claim can be dispensed with. Top of the list it transpires, is when an asylum seeker fails to give up to date contact details.
Bemused, flummoxed and sceptical MPs on the committee pressed on.
“Isn’t it strange that conveniently, when faced with a very stiff target, there has been a threefold increase for undetermined reasons, people magically not going forward with their claims. And where are those people?” asked Tory MP Tim Loughton.
Home office civil servant Simon Ridley, stuttered before admitting: “In most cases I don’t know where those people are.”
The response was almost laughable but make no mistake, this is far more a tragedy than comedy because each one of those cases represents a very real person. 42,000 people have been granted refugee status in the year to September. However, already stretched councils – many of whom are on the brink of bankruptcy – are warning that the overwhelming majority of those 42,000 people often have nowhere to live.
When these genuine refugees leave their home office or council accommodation on settlement of their claim – however “conveniently” or “magically” that may come about – many of them are presenting as homeless. Local authorities have warned they will end up sleeping rough on Britain’s streets this winter, with fatal consequences.
Not that the grave seriousness of the situation was reflected in the Commons, where at PMQs the predictable pantomime performance held full sway, with Greece, aptly providing the set-up for the punchlines. King of which was Sunak as the PM with the reverse Midas touch.
Kicking things off was a question to Sunak about why he cancelled a top-level meeting with the Greek prime minister at the last minute. Sunak told MPs: “When it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future but rather to grandstand and re-litigate issues of the past, it [the meeting] was inappropriate.”
The “issues of the past” referred to are of course the Parthenon Sculptures, aka the Elgin Marbles, around which the UK and Greece have been at loggerheads almost since the moment they were chiselled off the Parthenon’s walls and taken to London by Lord Elgin in 1806.
Sunak claimed he had been assured the sculptures were not up for discussion in the meeting with his Greek counterpart. When it transpired Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek PM intended to discuss them, Sunak pulled the plug and cancelled. Greece replied they had agreed no such undertaking.
If Sunak had wanted to appear macho on the world stage, he only succeeded in diminishing himself. A reverse Midas touch if ever a prime minister had one. Because as Mitsotakis pointed out: “The cancellation of this meeting also had a positive side. Greece’s just demand for the reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures received even more publicity, not only in the UK but also internationally.”
PM-in-waiting Starmer, as he himself pointed out, had no such qualms meeting the Greek PM and held fruitful discussions on a range of issues.
Starmer landed the predictable “Sunak has lost his marbles” joke over the PM’s hissy fit and said it was all a smokescreen to divert attention from his disastrous handling of immigration.
Figures published last week revealed net migration has reached all time record high – a direct consequence of the government’s “absurd” policy allowing UK companies to pay overseas workers 20% less than British ones.
“Under this government, a bricklayer from overseas can be paid £2,500 less than somebody who is already here. A plasterer, £3,000 less. An engineer, £6,000 less. The list goes on, it’s absurd,” said Starmer.
He kept landing blows, telling MPs the pressure on Sunak to sort the issue is from his own backbenches. The Tories are in “open revolt” the Labour leader declared referencing Suella Braverman’s claims the PM reneged on his an agreement on the issue with her to get support for his leadership bid. Starmer then moved onto Robert Jenrick’s claims in the Commons just yesterday (November 26) about his wish that tougher plans to deal with migration were introduced last year. Jenrick said he as a plan, but unfortunately no one is listening.
Starmer continued: “The immigration minister [Jenrick] thinks the prime minister is failing because apparently nobody will listen to his secret plan, the former home secretary [Braverman] thinks he is failing because of his ‘magical thinking’, the current home secretary [James Cleverly] thinks he is failing.
“The prime minister seems to be the only person on the Tory benches without his own personal immigration plan. Clearly, his own side don’t have any faith in him. Why should the public?”
And it’s not just on immigration, said Starmer, pointing to NHS waiting lists and the rising tax burden.
“It is ironic that he’s suddenly taken such a keen interest in Greek culture. But he’s clearly become the man with the reverse Midas touch.
“Everything he touches turns to… maybe the Home Secretary can help me out with this?” said Starmer, pausing to and clearly enjoying the merriment of his reference to Cleverly’s scatological judgment of a Labour constituency, before finally adding: “Rubbish.”
Alas, for Tory MPs, it’s a verdict shared on their benches too, especially after this latest PMQs. Starmer’s summation of Sunak, engaged in a “one man war on reality” and “lost in la-la land” will make them wonder waht hope they have when, as the evidence suggests, they’re being led by the man with the reverse Midas touch.