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?
By the arguments, the rhetoric, the presence at the despatch box, the delivery, the fluency, the facts at his disposal – the Prime Minister invariably wins PMQs but by the same token his opponent never loses. The engagement is such that no one gets hurt, no one gets their teeth knocked out, no one is crushed to death in the scrum. In terms of party politics, PMQs is structured to be a soulless draw.
If we score the noise, however, the Tories triumph. They always win. Their noise is a dense structure of victorious solidarity. It comes out of nowhere and jerks you awake no matter how deeply asleep you are.
Whenever Rishi says that Keir is “too weak to stand up to his union paymasters” it’s as though Harry Kane has scored. A shout of triumph (and possibly of relief) is let loose from the banks and ranks behind him.
Keir criticised him for some NHS crisis or calamity and Rishi responded: “Let’s have a look at the NHS in Wales.”
It might have been the 1966 World Cup finale. What an appalling noise!
It would take a brave sketch writer to pass any verdict on this Online Safety Bill. It needs a godlike reach to predict its real-world effects. Its consequences are legion. It contains multitudes.
What is observable from secondary indications (that is, the lamentations of Labour), Secretary Michelle Donelan does seem to have been true to her word. The issue of causing “harm” to adults is out – the great theme of free speech is in. Social media companies are obliged to take “particular” note of speech freedom. The “legal but harmful” concept has been eliminated and replaced with “user-empowerment tools” (you will be able to opt out of seeing material you don’t like).
Guido treads warily here. MPs and clerks have been at this Bill for five years with several secretaries of state and governments galore. Last week, its 243 pages were at Report stage – actually heading to the floor of the House with a number of sinister clauses in it – when Secretary of State Michelle Donelan ordered it back into committee for surgery. All provisions curtailing the idea of “legal but harmful” speech or “lawful but awful” communications were to be cut out from the Bill.
Has that happened? Has it been cleaned up, cleaned out, cleaned?
On Minister Scully’s account, it wasn’t clear to the back of the room. As a text-to-speech device, Paul Scully will benefit from an upgrade. The urgent monotone, the quick-fire of drafting terms – it’s not easy to keep up for those who haven’t been toiling in this particular vineyard as long as he.
However, the Oppositions gave clarity. On the account of the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman and Labour’s Charlotte Nichols, it is now a completely different Bill: “It is not an online safety Bill, it is a child protection Bill.”
That sounded quite good. Ah, but no. The Bill now failed to create a safe internet. And safety was paramount.