Keir Starmer has used prime minister’s questions to make a pointed and personal attack on Rishi Sunak over tax benefits for private schools, saying the policy of continued VAT exemption for school fees amounted to “trickle-down education”.
Specifically using Winchester, the private school Sunak attended, as an example, Starmer highlighted a 2017 article by Michael Gove that argued for VAT to be imposed on school fees.
“Winchester College has a rowing club, a rifle club and extensive art collection – they charge over £45,000 a year in fees,” the Labour leader said. “Why did he hand them nearly £6m of taxpayers’ money this year in what his levelling up secretary calls ‘egregious state support’?”
Citing the contrasting example of Southampton, where Sunak grew up, Starmer said four in every 10 state school pupils in the city failed either their English or maths GCSEs. “Is that £6m of taxpayers’ money better spent on rifle ranges in Winchester or driving up standards in Southampton?” Starmer asked.
He added: “If he thinks the route to better education in this country is tax breaks for private schools in the hope they might hand some of that down to state schools – that’s laughable. Trickle-down education is nonsense.”
Sunak responded with what seemed like genuine anger, saying Starmer was “attacking the hardworking aspiration of millions of people in this country”. The prime minister said: “He is attacking people like my parents. This is a country that believes in opportunity, not resentment. He doesn’t understand that, and that’s why he’s not fit to lead.”
Speaking afterwards, Sunak’s press secretary denied his defence of private school tax breaks was because he and his wife have sent their daughters to private school. “No. Not at all,” she said.
Reviving a common theme of recent PMQs, Starmer went on to accuse Sunak of being weak, saying he was being “pushed around by the lobbyists” over private schools, and was unable to stand up to a rebellion by Tory MPs who want to abolish targets for housebuilding.
At current trends, children today would only be able to afford to buy their first property aged 45, on average, said Starmer. “I love my kids, but I don’t want to be cooking them dinner in 30 years’ time.”
Sunak was, Starmer said, reported to be planning a relaunch under the unofficial banner, “operation get tough”, adding: “How tough is he going to get with his backbenchers, who are blocking the new homes this country so badly needs?”
The prime minister responded by saying his government was expanding housebuilding and sought to accuse Starmer of weakness over Labour MPs attending picket lines.
Starmer said: “Whichever way you slice it, it’s always the same. Whether it’s private schools, oil giants or those who don’t pay their taxes here, every week he hands out cash to those that don’t need it. Every week he gets pushed around, and every week he gets weaker.”