Keir has a new gimmick. He drops his voice and asks some light, innocent-sounding question in a meaningful, insinuating way, as if to tell us he’s leading his opponent into a cunning trap. He quotes from a report into a criminal atrocity and then wheedles, “Does the prime minister accept that?”
When Rishi agrees, Keir reads out another quote, more critical of the Government and wheedles a little more. “Does the prime minister accept that as well?”
Whoever advised him to do that should be sacked. As a gimmick it lacks many things but principally – impact, originality, appeal, dynamism, surprise, engagement with a modern audience. The man really needs some quality advice so here I am. I’m going for it, I’m pitching to be his PMQs adviser from now on.
One. No more voicing things, Keir. People don’t like it when you say things, so let’s just cut that right out. The speaking thing just doesn’t do it for you.
How to inspire people, then? How to take them with you? How to lift the spirit of the nation? Listen to me. Blair got rid of sentences – I want you to do without words. The modern era communicates in images. So, be visual. Pictures, visions, images – they are the universal language.
And how do we do PMQs like that? You’re going to say Erskine May forbids visual aids. Relax. What I’m going to tell you to do will drive social media crazy. You’ll change politics forever. I’m just going to say it.
It’s four words.
Puppetry of the Penis.
Hear me out.
It was the one word by which that Grand Grenouille, President Mitterand answered the question: “What is the one quality above all that leaders need to govern properly?” He pronounced it with such Gallic expansiveness, that he took several seconds to get through it: “Indifference.”
We say, in our clipped English way, “ ’ndiff’rence.”
Except we don’t say it in the House of Commons. Indifference – the ability to look at problems from a height and identify their moving parts in order to engineer a solution – that is unforgivable.
There, everyone is expected to react with Mediterranean emotionality to news of constituents’ hardship, disease and death. Even in the Gallery we aren’t expected to snigger. The groans of fellow-feeling that greeted the news that the oldest Holocaust survivor had died last night – it was as though MPs wanted to express the grief of a personal loss. They are saying: We understand. We grieve also. We are in touch with the lives of the people we represent. A pint of milk is 95p.
When Dawn Butler brought her breast cancer into a question to the PM, Tories went Sh! Sh! As if to say, “It’s cancer! Don’t heckle her, she’s had cancer.” Wayne David asked Rishi about the Dangerous Dogs Act, in the light of the people who had recently been killed by pets. As he said the words “lost their lives” a low moan of sympathy rose from his benches. No offence intended to the families of the victims but these performative expressions of sentimentality are as offensive – or more offensive, depending on your sensitivities – than respectable indifference.
Our nimble Prime Minister came into the House sideways, nimbling along his front bench he nimbled himself into his place. He does that very well. He may be tiny but he is quick. He is fly. He is light on his feet. He thinks as he speaks – something that, in your sketchwriter’s experience, only angry women do well – and this gives him room for manoeuvre.
When Cat Smith asked him how long he had to wait for his NHS dentist appointment he was, after some preparatory policy-waffle, able to say: “Let me answer the hon Lady directly.” He was registered with an NHS GP; he had used independent health care in the past; his hospital had been fantastic, and “The truth is, I’m proud to come from an NHS family” which is why he was “passionately committed” to the etcetera and the so forth. As an answer it was coming at us from all angles. He was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a horsefly.
Dentistry he is good at. And not just because his teeth are the biggest thing about him – he can do the rest of it; he gives a good account of himself. We haven’t had a prime minister since David Cameron who can do that at the despatch box. Mrs May was as God made her, the poor thing. Boris bored at the despatch box, sticking to answers, pre-packed by his staff. Rishi is at least a living presence at PMQs.
But is it enough?
He was up the stairs at the side of the Speaker’s chair before anyone could stop him. He’s quick. He’s fit. He’s nimble. But he’s not a Tory MP. He was in an alien environment, not for the first time. Was there hissing? If looks could actually kill would he survive?
He turned into the fourth bench up, and began the long trek across to an open seat at the end. Sidling, he touched knees and patted the backs of the locals, the indigenous representatives. Some looked up and others didn’t. One or two spoke to him. What were they saying? They’re politicians so it will have been different from what they were thinking. That can only have been: “What on earth are you doing here, you nob? This bench is for Conservative MPs. You lost the whip. You’re not one of us. You don’t exist.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking the Commons has engaged a High Church choral director to choreograph PMQs. The rehearsals of the last four weeks have now borne fruit and call and response cues are being picked up much more promptly, and with every appearance of doctrinal certainty, The doctrine is, in theological terms, victory.
So, the prime minister calls above the hubbub, “His union paymasters!” and the benches behind him shout back their dense, angry Amen. He cries, “Opportunist!” and they yell back words to the effect of, “And with thy spirit!”
He calls out cues such as “HIGHEST growth in the OECD!” And, “Read the WHOLE report!” And, “NO substance!” The cherubim and seraphim behind him – from Michael Fabricant to Craig Williams – they continually do cry “Holy Holy! Holy!”
Keir Starmer’s congregation have their own triggers. Twelve years of Tory rule! And Non doms would pay for 15,000 doctors. And Nothing! Not a thing while the working people get clobbered. Keir has cherubim of his own, and they have started continually crying as well, now that they sense the celestial structure is going to be altered in their favour.
The deputies faced each other. Angela of Ashton-Under-Lyne was going to have deputy Dominic for a late brunch. All of us wanted to watch. How politics degrades us.
She started responsibly, like a greedy eater longing for dessert but having to get through three soup and savoury courses first. Solidarity with Ukraine, we had to have. Serious face emoji. Multinationals and tax havens. Every pound in a tax haven, she claimed, was a pound lost to the British tax payer. This idea of 100% taxation may be why these people shelter their revenues. It’s not unreasonable. But there was no time to unpick that, we were onto our place in the world economy. She made the same claim as Rachel Reeves made yesterday (we were bottom) and she received the same response (we have record employment).
And then, at last, we were into the sugar rush sequence of sticky toffee Spotted Dick in a bed of jam, cream and custard trifle. “After days of dodging and denial, he finally acknowledged complaints about his conduct.” But, she went on, incredulously, there was no hint of admission of guilt, or even an apology. “This is Anti-bullying Week. Will he apologise?”
Would he apologise for being accused of bullying? That wasn’t very British. There was something oriental about it. By 2050 we may be more adapted to the Chinese way of doing things.