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PMQs sketch: Starmer and Sunak trade Post Office blows but bigger fight awaits on Gaza

Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer clashed over the Post Office Horizon scandal at PMQs (ES Composite)
Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer clashed over the Post Office Horizon scandal at PMQs (ES Composite)

Prime Minister’s Questions is often a raging tempest that sends sheet lightning across the parliamentary week. On Wednesday, it was more the becalmed eye at the centre of the storm ahead of a vote later on Gaza.

Sir Keir Starmer faced an anxious wait to see if his bid to defuse a Labour rebellion over an immediate ceasefire in Gaza would be allowed for a vote, and used his time instead to focus on the Post Office Horizon scandal.

SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn was in no mood to throw Labour a lifeline, however, demanding to know of Rishi Sunak how Israel could cite self-defence after destroying much of Gaza and leaving nearly 30,000 Palestinians dead since Hamas’s murderous raids on October 7.

“Enough is enough,” Mr Flynn said. “The best way to do that (end it) is to send a clear and united message that we back an immediate ceasefire.”

The PM said that “of course we want to see the fighting” but that “just calling for a ceasefire” that failed to last would not help anyone, with Hamas left in control of Gaza and Israeli hostages still in captivity.

Sir Keir stayed closer to home in grilling Mr Sunak over Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s accusation of lying against former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton.

The PM was invited repeatedly by the Labour leader to repeat her accusation that Mr Staunton was guilty of lying - which raised eyebrows for many. Mr Staunton will enjoy the same right to speak under parliamentary privilege when he appears before a Commons committee next week.

Mr Sunak declined, repeating only her charge that “serious concerns” were raised against the former chairman. But Ms Badenoch also stands accused by her critics of being economical with the truth after claiming that nobody in Government told the Post Office to delay compensation payments ahead of a General Election.

“A note released by the former Post Office chair this morning appears to directly contradict that,” Sir Keir said.

“I appreciate the Business Secretary has put the Prime Minister in a tricky position, but will he commit to investigating this matter properly? Including whether that categorical statement was correct, and why rather than taking those accusations seriously she accused a whistleblower of lying?”

The Labour leader also picked up reports that in 2016 under former PM David Cameron - now back in the Cabinet as an ennobled Foreign Secretary - an investigation into whether Post Office branch accounts could be altered remotely was suddenly stopped.

He said the livelihoods of those “wrongly prosecuted could have been saved”, and asked: “What did Government ministers know about it at the time?”

Mr Sunak insisted that the scandal “has unfolded over decades”, under ministers from Labour and the Liberal Democrats as well as the Conservatives. He is not wrong, but the controversy has landed firmly at his Government’s door after the broadcast of an ITV drama in the New Year.

That was a reminder of the power of television, and so is the daily picture of devastation on news channels from Gaza. As PMQs wrapped up, pro-Palestinian demonstrators were converging on Parliament ahead of the ceasefire vote.