The floods got Jeremy Corbyn into a pickle at PMQs. The Labour leader started off by out-virtuing Boris. The PM had expressed sympathy with the victims of Storms Chiara and Dennis. Corbyn stood up.
‘My thoughts are with those suffering across the world with the corona-virus,’ he said tartly.
He accused the PM of responding sluggishly to the inundations. Referring to an earlier crisis, he said, ‘I demanded that a Cobra meeting be called and [the Prime Minister] very reluctantly agreed.’ With the latest floods, Corbyn went on, he had once again ordered Boris to summon Cobra. But the PM had ignored the call. Why? Corbyn had his answer:
‘He doesn’t really care at all because there are no votes on the line at the moment.’
The question is, would another meeting of Cobra, (more properly Cobr ‘A’), have made any difference? An odd term, Cobra, full of mysterious glamour and potency, like the James Bond brand. It suggests crack-teams of SAS heroes bursting through the windows of besieged embassies under the personal direction of a boiler-suited prime minister. It evokes fleets of Hercules transport aircraft lined up on the runway at RAF Northolt, engines ablaze, wheels straining at the chocks. It conjures an image of steely-eyed paratroopers with boot-polish on their faces splashing down in flood-plains and plucking toddlers to safety. But all this is an accident. The racy acronym has the humblest of origins: Cabinet Office Briefing Room ‘A’.
The PM decided to reveal this today. Cobra is just a room, he said. That’s all. One of the many spaces in Number 10 where ministers and advisers can meet.
‘There are other rooms,’ Boris added.
This riled Corbyn intensely.
‘This issue is very serious for people around the country,’ he exploded. ‘They need help and support. They don’t need trite answers like that.’
But he only had himself to blame. He’d bigged up the mythical aura of ‘Cobra’ as some all-powerful military nerve-centre with the capacity to smite down the nation’s foes at a moment’s notice. His ploy exploded in his face.
He went on to claim that Boris’s personal failings accounted for his poor handling of the floods. The PM, he said, had been ‘hiding’ and ‘sulking in a grace and favour mansion in Kent’. (He meant Chevening which the PM clearly prefers to Chequers: it’s much further from his constituency.)
But does it matter that Chevening is ‘a mansion’? It matters to Corbyn.
‘The part-time prime minister,’ he went on, ‘spent last night schmoozing Tory party donors at a very expensive Black Tie Ball.’
Who knew that the Tory fund-raiser was black tie? Corbyn knew. And he was careful to include the dress-code because it added another key detail to his cartoon picture of the Tories as a bunch of idle, top-hatted Billy Bunters who live off the peasantry in country estates and pop up to town every so often to dance the night away in tailcoats and starched collars.
Labour needs to ditch this comic-book strategy. It alienates most of the voters. But the three leadership hopefuls, all carbon-copy Corbyns, show no sign of wising up.
Today’s session featured a notable record. For the first time since he became Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle interrupted PMQs. While Boris was on his feet, the level of rhubarb-rhubarbing on the Labour benches reached an intolerable pitch.
‘Listen to them jabbering away, Mr Speaker. Jabbering away!’
Hoyle stood up:
‘I think we’ll have a little bit more silence on the second row’.
Hush fell instantly. A curt phrase was all it took. The session moved smoothly on.