Sir Keir Starmer will want to forget today’s PMQs. And fast.
The Labour leader began with a strategic error. Instead of hounding the Prime Minister on a single issue he chose three unrelated topics: Covid, army numbers and steel production. Typical Sir Keir. Why use effective tactics when useless ones are available?
To be fair, he had a trump card up his sleeve. The Tory manifesto in 2019 specifically ruled out cuts to the size of the military. And in a newspaper interview, Boris said that the number of 82,000 personnel would be maintained. But 10,000 are about to go.
So the PM fibbed. The game was up. And what happened? The greased piglet wriggled free. Boris brushed aside Sir Keir’s evidence and claimed that he’d preserved every job in the army and had invested on all kinds of excitingly destructive new toys. Chunkier tanks, tastier gunboats, zippier fighter-jets and a beefed-up nuclear capability.
It was bit scary to see the PM palpitating with martial bravura at the despatch box. He had that crazed Blair-ite twinkle in his eyes. Was he about to convene a war-cabinet and announce a punitive raid on Calais, a task-force to sink an Argie frigate, the reconquest of Singapore?
Sir Keir’s response was ill-judged. ‘He’s fighting the last war,’ he said dismissively. Astonished giggles greeted this preposterous charge. Fighting the last war? Sir Keir leads a party crammed with political throwbacks who want to try socialism all over again because the voters loved it so much last time.
Boris offered an olive-branch and expressed delight at Labour’s sudden support for Britain's military might.
‘It’s wonderful to hear the new spirit of jingo that seems to have enveloped some of the Labour benches,’ he beamed. ‘They don’t like it up 'em, Mr Speaker.’
Sir Keir fired back with an improvisation.
‘Let’s try this for up ‘em,’ he said. More amused titters rang around the chamber. What a bizarre utterance. It recalled Ed Miliband’s yelp of ‘hell yes, I’m tough enough’ to Jeremy Paxman during the 2015 election – a chance remark that reveals a bogus character. Sir Keir will never master the art of saloon-bar banter and should avoid it altogether. His ‘let’s try this for up ‘em,’ is so inept, so incalculably gauche, so gloriously wrong in every sense, that it could become a tee-shirt slogan.
Sir Keir was growing irate at Boris’s refusal to accept that he’d fibbed.
‘He’s just playing with the numbers,’ he said, in his mosquito-ish whine. When he finds the Prime Minister guilty of speaking untruths he should puff himself up a bit, and sound stern, scornful and manfully outraged. Instead he makes a noise like a love-sick bluebottle. Then he came out with his best line of the day:
‘You just can’t trust the Conservatives to protect our armed forces.'
This triggered an outbreak of truly raucous hilarity across the chamber. Only a handful of members were present but the house felt packed all of a sudden. And what a joy it was to witness. Finally, after 12 months of self-imprisonment for the voters, the Commons was heard in full cry, roaring with amused derision.
Democracy is the sound of elected delegates abusing each other in conditions of physical safety. And there it was, for a few brief seconds, the thrilling noise of freedom as our MPs united in a burst of passionate, vituperative laughter.
For the first time since he took the chair, the Speaker had to warn them about their anti-social behaviour. Their guffaws were drowning out poor Sir Keir’s tinkly little soundbites.
‘I’m unable to hear the leader of the opposition,’ said Sir Lindsay.
Some in the Labour party are muttering that the less their leader is heard the better.