‘Keir today, gone tomorrow.’ The whisper before Easter was that Labour’s troubled leader might not survive until the next election but the spectre of Tory sleaze – which felled John Major’s government – has come to the rescue. Sir Keir started PMQs by alluding to David Cameron’s freelance activities for Greensill Capital.
‘Are the current lobbying rules fit for purpose?’ he asked.
Boris tried the ‘nothing to see here’ approach. He wants to smother the controversy by appointing a legal sleuth with a spectacularly dull name, Nigel Boardman, whose findings will be delivered in June. So for the next two months the PM can happily refer every question to ‘the Bored Man Enquiry.’ He’ll enjoy that.
And he cited the Lobbying Act of 2014 which, he claimed, had been passed by the Tories without Labour support. Ah but, said Sir Keir, that law was devised by the very man now in the spotlight: David Cameron.
Boris widened the issue and questioned Sir Keir’s closeness to Peter Mandelson who heads an international lobbying group, Global Counsel.
Sir Keir laughed at this. He said it reminded him of his old days as a prosecutor, (is there anything that doesn’t remind him of his old days as a prosecutor?). He called it ‘the shoplifter’s defence: everyone else is nickin’ stuff so why shouldn’t I?’
He did a Cockney accent on ‘everyone else is nickin’ stuff.’ Eight out of ten for the Phil Mitchell impersonation.
So Boris, as often happens in times of trouble, turned to his favourite political document: Labour’s 2019 manifesto. He said that Sir Keir’s party had proposed to loosen the rules on lobbying so as to facilitate the ‘obscure and opaque’ machinations of the trade unions.
But Sir Keir had an ambush ready. He demanded that a parliamentary committee be convened immediately to sift all the evidence. Would Boris support it? Boris rubbished it.
‘Getting MPs to do it won’t do a blind bit of good,’ he said, casually insulting every member of the house in just 12 words. He deserves a productivity bonus.
The return of Dodgy Dave has affected the leaders in curious ways. It’s a five-star opportunity for Sir Keir but it’s also a three-star opportunity for Boris.
Conveniently, it taints the reputation of his lifelong rival. More importantly, it casts doubt on two of the cabinet’s snappiest young puppies – Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock – who are hardly irreplaceable. In public, Boris will stoutly defend their honour while secretly praying that evidence of grave wrong-doing emerges. And then, having posed as a loyal chief protecting his beleaguered lieutenants, he will toss them both to the sharks while lamenting the tragedy of great careers cut short by human frailties.
Sir Keir was unusually tiggerish today. Chuckling, snuffling, giggling to himself and delivering toxic asides that struck home.
‘That wasn’t a good point,’ he said when Boris tried to smear the shadow defence secretary. ‘If you think that’s a good point, you’ve got problems!’
Almost certainly this was his best ever PMQs. The ace that he needs is evidence of Boris’s involvement in the scandal. It was Labour’s Ruth Cadbury who tried to winkle something fishy out of the PM. She commanded him to ‘tell this house when he last spoke to David Cameron.’ It sounded like a McCarthyite show-trial.
‘I can’t remember,’ said Boris, which is the kind of answer you give when you have nothing to hide. His sunny, relaxed demeanour today suggested that his palms are grease-free.