A testy, ill-tempered PMQs. Sir Keir Starmer began by welcoming the anti-viral breakthrough achieved by British scientists. He got an instant slap-down. ‘I’m glad he’s finally paying tribute to the efforts of this country in tackling the coronavirus,’ said Boris, finding Sir Keir guilty of anti-British sentiment.
The PM was road-testing a new jingoistic approach today. He believes his handling of the pandemic is the greatest achievement since the invention of the steam engine. And the furlough is the jewel in this glorious crown. ‘Eleven million jobs protected by a scheme unlike anything anywhere else in world!’ he enthused. Perhaps Sir Keir would be asked to ‘take a knee’ for the job retention programme.
The Labour leader was in a cheerless Sunday-pulpit mood. He wanted to discuss poverty and he predicted that financial destitution will shortly embrace 5.2 million children. Sir Keir had been up late doing his homework. And it showed.
There was no detail too small to be omitted. He read out a press release from the Royal College of Physicians and added that the Royal College of Nurses had supported it too. So did Unison.
He quoted a cry-for-help from Tory-led Lancashire council with the correct date, 7th May, included. And he said that cash-strapped councils were torn between making cuts and going bust. And he specified the legal instrument involved. ‘Bankruptcy under Section 114 Notices.’
This makes life difficult for headline writers. Sir Keir imagines that he’s addressing a wise and learned panel of appeal court judges who must double-check every detail before reaching their verdict. He has no idea how to use everyday language. Boris does. And he deliberately drew Sir Keir away from poverty and forced him to discuss re-opening schools.
‘He hummed and he hawed,’ said Boris, ‘when I asked him about it last week.’ He called Sir Keir’s equivocation ‘wibble wobble.’ And he blamed the teaching unions.
‘A great ox has trod upon his tongue,’ he said. An arcane classical proverb. An ox meant ‘money’ in ancient city-states where the coinage bore images of cattle. The phrase means ‘to be bribed into silence.’
That image completely trounced the nit-picking pedantry of Sir Keir. His advisers should ask themselves which device is more memorable – ‘bankruptcy under Section 114 Notices’ or the caricature of a bull stamping on a man’s tongue.
Ian Blackford of the SNP offered to end poverty with ‘twenty pounds a week’. This should be handed to families who must choose ‘between paying their bills and feeding their children.’ Twenty pounds a week. He repeated it five times. It was dull to listen to. But dullards do useful work in politics. It’s said that only when Westminster is bored to death of a phrase does the public start to hear it.
Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael brought up a mis-selling scandal. Imported beef, he revealed, may be labelled ‘British’ provided it has been packaged on UK soil. The Prime Minister – who appeared to mistake him for an SNP MP – was outraged. ‘This must be one of those things governed by the laws of the European Union,’ he said, ‘to which he is bound to return an independent Scotland, should that catastrophe ever arise.’
Carmichael giggled at this. Boris enlarged on the topic of liberty. ‘We on this side will take advantage of the freedoms we have won,’ he said, praising himself for delivering Brexit. When he mentioned ‘freedom’, Martin Docherty-Hughes, of the SNP, thrust out both his thumbs and turned them earthwards. An odd gesture from a democratic party. Down with freedom.