Parliamentary standards continue their Cresta Run. In the gallery, many of us weren’t wearing a tie, one of us wasn’t wearing a jacket and Angela Rayner’s PAd wasn’t wearing a shirt. He’d come in his vest. That was a first. Coming to PMQs in a wife-beater. Knocked Oliver Dowden’s prolier-than-thou performance out of the park. But then, it’s a very small park.
The Prime Minister’s sock puppet, speaks like he’s building sentences out of Lego. The poor fellow clicks words into clauses and clauses into clusters and holds the results up for approval and applause. This he did with his climactic joke – Keir Starmer had said he hated tree huggers “but they seem very keen on hugging the magic money tree.”
He held his humorous construction high into the rising silence. Only the cruellest spirits and the strongest stomachs were able to laugh, and even we had the decency to smother it down to snorts.
The Left declared a swingeing victory for Rayner, the Right – as usual – said nothing at all.
Ms Rayner told the House she was “filling John Prescott’s boots” as the last time a Prime Minister had missed two PMQs in a row was 1996 when Prescott was Shadow Deputy Prime Minister. And here she was, asking the same questions as he had, nearly 30 years ago. Child poverty. Tory Mortgage Bombshell. Crashed economy. Had anything changed?
In those days, Nicholas Soames used to sledge Prescott at the despatch box with, “Bring us a gin and tonic, Giovanni.” That at least has changed.
In those days, the Tories reduced unemployment by shifting the unemployed onto sickness benefit. These days – the trick is simply to shuffle the question. Why has child poverty risen by 75%, Rayner asked. “Because we have lifted 400,000 children out of poverty” was the answer. “And they have the highest reading standards in Europe.”
Aha. Try this, then. Perhaps one of the most recherché questions ever asked in PMQs: “How many kids today don’t have a permanent address?” He replied, “How the **** should I know?”
No, he didn’t. He said, “We can exchange numbers all we like, but the important thing . . . ”
Sorry, as you were, “How the **** should I know,” was his response, if not his reply.
The numerical answer was 55,000, apparently. Child poverty, and so forth. “Why are we asking the exact same thing?” she demanded. There were cries of Shame! Shame!
It is a question many of us fear to confront full on. Angela is telling us that we are again the sick man of Europe. The 90s had us as an ERM basket case, we have recently been the Brexit leper – but today, we are worse. This cultural and economic combination of sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, and necrotising fasciistis is consuming us from the inside.
And Labour is surely the proof of that old pudding: “If you think things can’t get any worse – it’s just a failure of the imagination.” How on earth will a Keir Starmer government cope with these multiple, chronic and rather disgusting disabilities?
Dowden finished with a well-constructed piece of Lego. That Labour always left office with unemployment higher than when they had got in. But now they were even stopping people getting to work – Just Stop Oil protesters blocking the roads, union paymasters calling train strikes, and the hated ULEZ stopping cars in the capital.
The best that can be said of their duet – it was over.
Next week is the last PMQs of the session. They will be much missed.
For the warm-up half-hour, it was Kemi Badenoch, a sometime Tory leadership candidate who caused quite a flare of excitement at the time of the election. Young, attractive, patriotic, successful – she soared across the firmament and made a dazzling landing in her first department and then in her second: Women and Equalities.
At the despatch box, she shows signs that the pace of political office is fast and hard. To conserve energy, she reads her answers off her prominently-held iPad, avoids troubling the House with controversy, and represents those of her constituents who express disdain and contempt for parliament. It’s brave of her, and original, and maybe exactly what the Conservative Party – if not needs – then thoroughly deserves.
One of her seconds, Mims Davies, makes unusual use of her yellow highting pen. In her A4 briefing pages visible from the gallery, every single line was highlighted. Page after page. This is to misunderstand the nature of highlighting – to separate the wheat from the chaff. And the stalks. And the bird droppings, crushed insects, field mice, clods of earth and clots of congealed silage. Does that have a bearing on the things Ms Mims says from the despatch box? Does it explain the clots, clods and crushed insects in her replies?