By some cyber super-villainy, the parliamentary media passes were disabled today. Doors that normally opened submissively blocked and barred even the grandest of us, even the BBC. It was as though they were members of the public.
Nonetheless, we are journalists, we have our ways, we will not be denied access. Through the sewers, principally, and up through the drainpipes we swarmed the press gallery, nothing could keep us away from PMQs.
To begin with a sketch scoop – the back of Rishi’s head. Through a cleavage in that thick, pitch thatch is emerging a glimpse of scalp. We plant a flag there, to claim the territory for Guido. A patch of skull was the first sign of the pressures of office felt by David Cameron all those years ago – it is surprising, considering his circumstances, that the PM isn’t as bald as a billiard ball.
Jeremy Wright introduced his visiting 110-year-old constituent to the House and commended him to his party leader as an example of “surviving against the odds”.
Yes, thanks, mate, cheers for that, Jeremy.
Rishi had just had the ultra-loyalist John Hayes (it’s never been entirely clear to whom John is ultra-loyal) saying, “That 1.3 million migrants over a period of two years is a catastrophe for Britain is obvious to everyone apart from guilt-ridden bourgeois liberals.” He is the chair of the Tories’ Commonsense Group and it is a mark of his political ability that “everyone” agrees with what he has said, but not when he says it. He makes you search out the good points of Hamas. And Hitler, even, who had interesting ideas on opera house architecture.
Mr Commonsense asked in a commanding sort of way that the PM follow the instructions of his immigration minister “exactly”. The PM said he was grateful as always for the hon Gent’s advice – probably a more insulting response than anything James Cleverly could come up with. Rwanda was going to be designated safe by an Act of Parliament and the courts would not be able to declare the flights there illegal. Let’s see how that goes.
Sunak was making a very daring defence of his immigration record based on the importance of keeping one’s word and acting on one’s commitments and doing what one said one was going to do. A good prosecutor might have taken the PM apart bit by bit and left him naked, limbless and looking round the room for his vital organs.
Keir contented himself by saying the PM is “in lala land” and that he is “waging a one-man war on reality”.
In the event, his indolent abuse was assisted by the AV authorities in their cabin at the back because even as the PM taunted Starmer with the words, “Britain isn’t listening to him” they cut his mic off, meaning Britain wasn’t listening to either of them. Tulip Siddiq – she has the prettiest name of any MP and exemplary comic timing – quoted one of the senior cardinals in our scientific papacy who recently testified to the Covid Inquiry, “Rishi thinks, ‘Just let people die, and that’s okay.’”
Against a rising Tory hubbub she called out: “How is it that the Prime Minister is okay with people in our country dying?” Is there no end to the power of politics in the socialist world view? Their core value is “the audacity of hope”, in Barack Obama’s preposterous phrase. Conservatives are by contrast coming to the end of their struggle session in re-evaluating their politics and are starting to rally round their own core value. In this case, despair.
Tories have a special relationship with this time of year. The lazy days of summer are gone, the temperatures are beginning to bite, it’s back to work, time for tweeds, the season of country sports and the thrill of the hunt.
Was there any thrill in the Hunt we saw just now? Proper Tories will have their own reactions but for Gallery Guido the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was crushingly autumnal. Even as he spoke, you felt the nights drawing in and a rush towards the longest night.
He announced this and that, and at each announcement one felt a little life draining away. The small business multiplier is to be frozen for another year. Class 4 National Insurance contributions are being reduced by a full percentage point.
And these details are in his power, he can affect them with his signature. Other proposals are entirely fanciful. He is going to reduce access times to the national grid by 90 per cent. Where it takes 15 years to get your wind farm connected to the grid it’s now going to take just over a year. It takes a year to get the department to answer its phone. The best of British luck with that essential little ingredient for Net Zero.
The Chancellor is also going to increase public sector productivity by 0.5% a year.
He is attempting to penetrate one of the great administrative mysteries of modern times. The NHS was recently the beneficiary of Britain’s largest fiscal settlements – a £50bn Workforce Plan. Post-pandemic they now have 10% more nurses and 15% more consultants – and yet hospital activity has fallen. And no one knows why. NHS England even refuses to admit the mystery exists. Does the Chancellor know what he’s up against?
The only reliable way he could do that is by firing 30,000 public sector workers a year which – in modern parlance – is an act of genocide.
The Chancellor finished by telling us that his new approach amounted to the biggest package of tax cuts since the 1980s. This may be so, but the achievement isn’t so remarkable when you’ve presided over the highest taxing parliament in history.
To be fair, they probably had to, to make a dent in the £300bn bill incurred by paying the nation to take a year off work – but that’s not something Labour or the Tories can ever say in public.
The PM sat behind his Chancellor with a lively face, smiling cleverly as if we should understand that the announcements were largely his idea. Odd that the puppeteer should be smaller than the puppet.
The deeply autumnal sense increased with the shadow chancellor’s reaction. We all know Rachel Reeves. Suffice it to say, she is as God made her.
If it’s springtime for Labour it’s getting very wintry for Britain.
In the preceding PMQs, MPs made efficient use of the recent media-friendly supply of dead children. The ones without political significance were used to demonstrate MPs’ human qualities. The ones in Gaza became blood donors for Stephen Flynn. He dabbled his hands in their wounds, took a draught of their suffering to lubricate his Caledonian keening. He said that a five-day ceasefire was merely a stopgap and he, the PM, was endorsing “a return to the killing of children” whereas he, Stephen Flynn, wanted “an end to the killing of children“. This miracle would be effected by taking power from the actually genocidal Hamas and given to the actually genocidal Palestinian Authority.
Yes, winter is definitely on the way.
You have to hand it to Rishi. I leave you to define the “it”. He surveys the apocalyptic comedy playing out in front of him with grace and good humour and the occasional glitch, as his clutch slips. You can’t blame him for that. He is surrounded by enemies, opponents, satirists, sociopaths, a sullen civil service and a malevolent judiciary: it’s marvellous his speaking functions function at all.
Indeed, as evidence of his resilience, he was able to reassure us that the Supreme Court had just endorsed the Rwanda plan with a couple of reservations, and that flights would be starting early next year. Or so I understood from what he said.
Keir almost managed to get out a decent joke out about Elon Musk, the reshuffle, the return of PM formerly known as Dave, the accumulating collapse of the Tory party and AI. It was a multi-dimensional affair with a punchline of “turning it off and turning it on again”. We all like that joke. Always have done. And Keir is so high in the polls he can fluff as much as he likes. He and his chancellor sat there like Easter Island statues, dreaming of the time when it will all be theirs to make a mess of, and to wave away criticism with lordly ease.
Speaking of which, there is a Spy cartoon of David Cameron on the wall of the press gallery staircase. He is looking down at a paper in his hand with amused indifference, nonchalant hand in pocket, elegant collar, upper class complexion. Actually, it’s George Curzon circa 1900 but the spirit of Eton travels through the generations. Is it worth recalling that Curzon’s prime minister, Lord Salisbury expressed the essence of Conservatism with his remark: “What do we need change for – aren’t things bad enough as they are?”
In any event, it was the stocky backbencher Kevin Brennan who won PMQs with a feline question to Rishi: “What was David Cameron’s greatest foreign policy achievement?” The word Brexit was ostentatiously unsaid. The great political disaster that caused the government to fall, for Cameron to resign and to engage in a little light lobbying on behalf of an Australian financier – all that struck Members at different times causing Commons laughter to ebb and flow in a ways that only the most successful jokes manage to do.
Several questioners accused the Government of moral failure for not demanding a ceasefire in Palestine. Blame, shame and accusations of genocide are the common coin of Middle East discourse, by its nature. And of course dead children do feature somewhere in the ethical calculation – but they are given different values by different interests, not all of them impartial. So, when Rishi called the accusation and the analysis on which it was based “naive” and “simplistic”, it sounded like a very proper response.
He might have said – but didn’t – that only one of the combatant parties has genocide explicitly written into its constitution. It’s odd how Rishi pulls his punches at the last minute. Is that why his reputation is as it is? His obituaries will doubtless make all that clear.
NB: James Cleverly sat beside the PM, displacing the Second Lord of the Treasury. He span a pen in and around his fingers in the way that cinematic villains do. Does he feel his time is coming? It may well be approaching. All he has to do is live to be 145.
He might give the new foreign Secretary a passing thought: Rex quondam, rexque futurus, as Eton says. All serious politicians consider the worst that could happen. The possibility of a second Cameron premiership would be well worth the Home Secretary bearing in mind.
“Too many notes, Mozart. Very good effort but too many notes.”
Keir Starmer was saying that the British public wanted to tell the Conservatives to “eff off” and the PM was saying, “A £100,000 mortgage locked in six months before the end with savings £350 a month with a new deal AND repossessions prohibited 12 MONTHS after the first missed payment. TWICE as generous as Labour’s!”
What administrative arpeggios he can improvise – the audience really needs a degree in public policy to appreciate our prime minister as he deserves. Keir’s adenoidal adagio rather cut through, the Alastair Campbell school of rhetoric: Eff off Prime Minister.
He had tied it to the Tory candidate at Tamworth who had gone on the record as advising beneficiaries to “f*** off,” and categorised it as “official government policy.” He called for a general election “so that the British public can return the compliment.”
With his weakness for the underdog, your correspondent is firmly on the side of the prime minister. When Keir brought up the case of Anna Lisa who had been no-fault evicted, I struggled not to heckle, “Laffer effects! It’s Laffer!”
“What other message could she possibly take?” he asked.
The correct message – and no details are necessary – is that making evictions easier will increase the supply of rental properties and thus bring rents down, making life both easier and cheaper for renters. Agreed it’s a variation on Laffer rather than the opening theme, but with time and tuition, Anna Lisa would see the logic and the beauty of it. With an intensive program of door-to-door economic one-on-ones, our country would be ready for a Tory government in – what – 150,000 years?
It began as it went on, Members banging parliamentary pots and pans “for the NHS”. It is the service’s 75th anniversary. Everyone who worked in it, voted for it, used it, died in it was “celebrated” and had “tribute” paid them. Not a dissenting voice was raised. Oliver Dowden called it “a treasured national institution”. With its near-£200 billion budget it’s a national treasure, all right.
As someone in favour of a national health service, I am prepared to risk the mockery of my peers by conceding the possibility that Lucy Letby and Harold Shipman aren’t the sole role models for the medical staff. But even we reckless enthusiasts must recognise that the NHS – by indolence, inertia, incompetence, ignorance, bureaucratic idiocy and occasional sadistic malevolence – has killed more people than the British army. As the police have admitted that one of their core values is “structural racism” will the NHS be forced to confront the reality that “genocide” is one of its strategic outcomes?
Mhairi Black, the deputy leader of the implosive SNP, made a rather brilliant cross-party point as she read out two very similar quotations arguing for more private sector involvement in the NHS. She asked if Dowden could say which quote belonged to the PM and which to the Leader of the Opposition. When Dowden referred to King Charles in his reply, she laughingly flicked her fingers to and fro across her throat in that execution way. This was a very popular hate crime in the House, and as one of our more attractive hate criminals, Ms Black will be much missed when she quits at the next general election. Dowden said as much, noting that they had come in to the House together. “And we’re pretty certain to be leaving together,” she responded to shouts of laughter, not least from Conservative members.
High in the Tory backbenches, far out of his natural environment, Matt Hancock fiddled with the end of his tie. The death toll from lockdown hasn’t entirely come in, but when it does he will have achieved parliamentary immortality.
Is our PM afflicted by some secret sorrow? Have the cares of office worn his high spirits away? Does he secretly want to accede to Chris Bryant’s parliamentary request this afternoon: “Will he admit he is literally the worst person possible to be leading the country?”
In a world containing Yevgeny Prigozhin, Lucy Letby, Prince Harry and Chris Bryant himself, there is stiff competition for that particular slot. The thought that Rishi Sunak might be worst of all possible premiers was so unfair it must have been calculated for the Today programme.
Rishi, as we know, is normally pert as a pixie. He likes to make people happy. Today, his head was down, his shoulders dropped, his spirit curdled which made the wrong sort of people happy in the wrong sort of way. He was quite curt with the Leader of the Opposition, and actually rude to Stephen Flynn. He called him “economically illiterate,” giving that SNP leader the opportunity to shout “Brexit! Brexit!” and a number of other ancient Caledonian curses.
Keir Starmer – this is reported without side – looked for the first time to have established an upper hand at the despatch box. Considering Keir’s natural qualities he deserves some sort of Invictus award. He asked short and unanswerable questions such as, is the PM for or against building 300,000 houses? Can he name anyone who believes he will build 300,000 houses? And then assertions which may or may not be true, but which many will be inclined to agree with – mortgage rates, and so forth, “Housebuilding at its lowest level since the Second World War!”
Rishi responded with his own assertions that may or may not be true. That we currently have the highest number of first-time buyers in 20 years. That Labour will build out the Green Belt. That the Tories have put local people in control of house building.
”There’s your problem,” as builders say. Was it really wise to put local people in charge of house building? You’ve met local people, you know what they’re like. If you’re reading this you’re probably a local person yourself – would you honestly put yourself in control of housebuilding? Any answer other than “No,” indicates complete unsuitability for that great national undertaking.