Last week the outgoing Prime Minister recalled being accosted when on a tour of New York with Mayor Bloomberg. “Hey, Cameron!” yelled a pedestrian, “Prime Minister’s Questions! We love your show!”. The House laughed, but it’s an interesting conceit, and one that is not without its merit. In the Commons relationships are strained and rivalries are fought out, fortunes are made and reputations are dashed, and season finales see big beasts die – and then sometimes come back to life (if you’re Dirty Den or Boris). All the while the show goes on.
However, if PMQs is a show, then one couldn’t shake the feeling that today’s was a repeat. It started off originally enough when John Glen kicked things off and the House turned to see George Osborne sitting just below him. This certainly was novel: the former Chancellor marooned on the backbenches, nodding along vacantly in the manner of a hostage going along with their captors’ script. Michael Gove was stranded in the cheap seats too, perhaps concentrating so hard on learning loyalty – as ordered by the Prime Minister – that he zoned out. So far, so different.
But then as Theresa May took to the despatch box one couldn’t help but notice her husband Philip beaming down with pride from the peers’ gallery above. Ah, now that’s when we’ve seen this one before! It was thirty years ago and back then another Prime Minister’s husband watched a grammar school girl from the provinces who went on to Oxford rip apart a shabbily dressed, white haired old lefty. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
These similarities were clearly not lost on Mrs May either, who accordingly decided that it was Thatcher, not Cameron, who she would look to for inspiration. Gone was her predecessor’s good-natured jesting at his opposite number’s expense, replaced instead with a more subtle twisting of the knife. This was no more apparent that when the PM responded to Mr Corbyn’s question on job insecurity with a devastatingly mean analogy: “I suspect that many Members on the Opposition Benches might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss” she began, “a boss who does not listen to his workers, a boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload and maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career”. For the coup de grâce Mrs. May leaned forward on to the despatch box, and in stentorian tones with more than a hint of malice inquired: “Remind him of anybody?”.
Not only was this a more bitter form of invective that would have been employed by the Notting Hill set, but it was delivered deadpan and without any hint of rosy-cheeked, good-natured, Cameron-esque pantomime. This was no longer a friendly ribbing, and more an outright assault on the Labour benches. In the same spirit the PM drily remarked to Corbyn that she looked forward to his PMQs questions, and hoped “that we will be having those exchanges over the despatch box for many years to come”. Unlike Cameron, Mrs May doesn’t want the Labour Party resurrected by a Blairite: she wants to destroy it.
In fact the only bit of levity shown by the PM was when she talked of “fond memories of Newcastle airport” in response to Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell, going on to note wistfully that when she stood for the North West Durham constituency she “made quite good use of the airport”. Such remarks betrayed a fondness for getting the hell out of the North East as quickly as possible that perhaps sheds some light on why she didn’t get elected there.
Labour thus disposed of without a shred of mercy, Angus Robertson rose to have a good old moan about Brexit. Hair still damp from the shower like a schoolchild, and adjusting his flies mid-sentence, he began by asking if the PM “will thank Chancellor Merkel for the interest of the members of her Government and of the Bundestag in having Scotland remain within the EU?”. Not satisfied that he’d riled up the British public sufficiently, he then closed with the ominous warning that “we in Scotland will do everything—everything—that is necessary for us to remain in the EU”. This raised the the intriguing prospect of a Pict-Kraut alliance (although in the post-Livingstonian spirit of not mentioning Hitler no jokes will be made here about the historic inexpediency of allying with the Germans in the cause of a pan-European superstate).
And finally up stood Tim Farron for the last question of the afternoon. For his trouble he was greeted with a wall of sighs and groans followed by a collective laugh – a final humiliation which he was forced to join in with himself by straining out a self-deprecating faux-chuckle. His question about Government legal spending on Brexit was summarily dismissed by the PM, who then further reminisced on her first attempt at becoming an MP. “I am very happy to remember the days that the honorable Gentleman and I spent campaigning in North West Durham at the time of a general election”, she recalled, “little did the voters of North West Durham know that the two unsuccessful candidates in that election would become leaders of two of the country’s political parties, although I would point out to the honorable Gentleman that my party is a little bit bigger than his”. The PM sat down with a cold stare. At this point Cameron would have laughed to himself and smiled, turning to the Tory benches for applause. But not Theresa May, she looked straight ahead. It looks like the lady is not for turning.