It was woeful. It was ugly to behold. It was beyond gruesome. Even Boris’s most faithful supporters had to watch PMQs from behind the sofa. Sir Keir Starmer, who turns 58 today, got a fabulous birthday present – a stunningly inept performance from the Prime Minister.
Sir Keir demanded a ‘straight answer to a straight question’: when did Boris know ‘there was a problem’ with the algorithm used to decide A-level grades?
‘May I congratulate him on his birthday,’ said Boris – making it clear he hadn’t the foggiest what to say. The Prime Minister then started firing off random phrases in the hope that a coherent sentence might accidentally take shape in mid-air.
“The stress of young people … they and their families going through a pandemic … haven’t been able to stage normal exams …. we instituted a change, we acted… we congratulate them on their hard work … they deserve their grades.
Sir Keir sensed weakness.
“Either he knew and did nothing. Or he didn’t know.
This time, Boris stitched together a semi-coherent buck-passing operation. The fiasco was more down to Ofqual, he said – ‘an independent organisation’.
He berated Sir Keir for ‘spreading gloom and dubitation’ about the safety of schools, which have just reopened. ‘It’s a great day today!’ he said, with grimacing cheeriness.
Sir Keir’s knife went in.
“He’s playing games. He’s fooling nobody.
He quoted a (not very brave) Conservative MP, whose anonymous smears have reached the papers.
‘There’s no grip. God knows what’s going on,’ said Sir Keir’s nameless Tory source.
Boris fought back on the competence issue:
“This is a leader of the opposition who backed remaining in the EU and now is totally silent. … He supported an IRA-supporting leader who wanted us out of NATO.
Mr Speaker rose and shouted, ‘order!’ In other words, ‘shut up, prime minister.’ Boris sat down and the Speaker politely asked him to address the question.
“It would be helpful to all those watching at home.
Boris agreed. ‘It would be helpful,’ he said, and resumed his assault on Sir Keir. The Speaker rose again. ‘It’s for me to make the decision,’ he ruled, icily. Boris did as he was told.
Slapped down twice by the Speaker – when did that last happen to a prime minister?
When Sir Keir stood up, he broke off his interrogation to mention the years he spent in Northern Ireland, prosecuting terrorists who would gladly have executed him. He was outraged by the idea that he might have supported them.
But Sir Keir’s rage was not a thing of heroism or grandeur – it seemed to diminish him. His shoulders tensed. His chest froze. His eyes blazed feebly and his voice rose to a sharp tinkle, like a rusty wind-chime.
“He said something about the IRA. … I ask the Prime Minister to have the decency to withdraw that comment.
Boris, who seemed keen to cram in as many gaffes as possible, did the opposite. He failed to retract. The Speaker then intervened again, forcing him to satisfy Sir Keir. Which led to another blunder. All Boris could manage was a paragraph of lofty waffle about ‘listening to the right honourable gentleman’s protestations.’
Sir Keir’s quick mind and inconspicuous style make him deadly on occasion. This was one:
“When he’s worked with security personnel, prosecuting criminals and terrorists, he can lecture me… But doing the decent thing and the prime minister don’t go together.
This was carnage. Three direct hits from Sir Keir. And three strikes from the Speaker.