Rishi Sunak’s newfound bravado halts opposition's healthcare attack

Private healthcare admission disarms Keir Starmer as Prime Minister demonstrates skill of withering jibe

Rishi Sunak was in a combative mood during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday. AFP
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Reinvigorated from the Christmas break, supported by an astute political adviser and easily surpassing his predecessor’s time in office, the UK's Rishi Sunak swatted away opposition attacks at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

Foremost was his immediate disarming of a potentially hostile and troubling question on whether he has used private health care.

At a time of immense strain on the National Health Service and on a day when 25,000 ambulance workers went on strike, Mr Sunak took the political risk of being straight with the public and admitted to using “independent health care”.

To a country devoted to the NHS, going private for a politician carries accusations of privilege, hypocrisy and — especially for a multimillionaire — a remoteness from the general public.

That was why Mr Sunak had previously refused to answer questions on whether he had used a private dentist, but then, in the most public forum, he admitted to it for the first time.

As he did so, Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote furiously on his usually well-scripted notes in an attempt to think up a stinging riposte.

But he was to be disappointed. Primed by the approving bellows behind him, the Prime Minister gave a thundering performance, eviscerating all in his path.

It had not appeared so at the midday start when he arrived alone to some hearty cheers from MPs yet to be convinced of his leadership or election-winning potential after 77 days in office following Liz Truss’s departure.

Mr Starmer arrived confidently, flanked by his deputy Angela Rayner and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves.

But they were undercut by the early healthcare confession, an admission perhaps prompted by the appointment right before Christmas of James Forsyth, the scholarly but street-smart editor at Spectator magazine, as his political secretary.

James Forsyth, right, attends The Spectator Parliamentarian Of The Year Awards in London. Getty

Speaking truth to power is an overused phrase but a vital attribute for political longevity.

A contemporary at Winchester College and now a close family friend, Mr Sunak and Mr Forsyth are godfathers to each other’s children.

Mr Forsyth will also hope to survive longer in the job than his wife, Allegra Stratton, who served as press secretary to Mr Sunak's predecessor Boris Johnson, but fell on her sword early in the Covid pandemic when footage of her giggling during a mock press conference emerged. She previously worked as Mr Sunak's director of strategic communications at the Treasury.

An astute political observer, Mr Forsyth will give it straight to Mr Sunak — and more importantly, the Prime Minister will listen.

Mr Forsyth's hand also seems to be behind last Saturday’s meeting of NHS leaders in Downing Street’s first serious attempt to resolve the crisis of striking nurses, ambulance staff and the threat of doctors, too.

The Prime Minister was attacked by Mr Starmer for failing to end the broadening strikes, referring to the weekly pandemic applause for medical staff by stating: “When I clapped for nurses, I meant it.”

Mr Sunak’s rebuttal was, for a naturally polite person, sharp and bruising. Labour’s proposed NHS reforms “costs a fortune and are out of date … just like the Labour Party”.

Warming to his new theme of polite put-downs, the Conservative leader generated growing warmth and approval on the benches behind when asked by the Scottish National Party leader about the apparent £1 million earnings made by former prime minister Mr Johnson from four public speeches after leaving office.

“I don't think we need to talk about our predecessors,” Mr Sunak said, leaning into the despatch box. “One of yours worked for Russia Today.” Chuckles of approval met the reference to Alex Salmond’s time at the now-sanctioned broadcaster.

Later, turning his guns back on Labour, Mr Sunak condemned it as a party that “always runs out of other people’s money”.

It was a good start to 2023 for Mr Sunak, as noted by political observers.

“That’s Rishi’s best PMQs yet,” said one commentator afterwards. “He clearly had his oats this morning.”

His colleague responded: “Yes, and it look like he’s practised shouting in the mirror.”

However, Mr Sunak has some hard yards ahead if he is to reign in Labour’s seemingly unassailable poll lead, with the latest figures showing the Conservative between 14 and 24 points behind.

But if he plays to his strengths of honesty and transparency, Mr Sunak may well gain appeal among voters who are utterly despondent after 13 years of Tory rule.

Updated: January 11, 2023, 4:50 PM