It has come down to a classroom contest. The swot versus the wag. The smart Alec against the rugger captain. The chemistry nerd who wants to join the cool kids behind the bike-sheds. Sir Keir has been praised for his ‘forensic’ attacks on Boris at PMQs. What is ‘forensic’? ‘Forum’ means a market-place and later it referred to an arena where trials were held. ‘Public square’ more or less covers it. And though Starmer is adept at court-room dissections he’ll never appeal to the throng. He isn’t box-office.
His great distinction is also his curse. He’s like the prosecutor in a fraud trial methodically piling up an impenetrable tonnage of evidence while the jurors daydream, the clerks doodle and the judge dozes. Today he had too much to say and spent too long saying it. He loves to cite experts with boring titles, (the chief executive of Care England, the deputy chief scientific adviser). He also quoted from the Government’s command strategy, and drew comparisons between the UK, Germany and South Korea.
On paper it was brilliant, no doubt. A clear win for Starmer. But the fixture wasn’t fought on paper. It was fought on television. And if Starmer can’t clobber Boris with a prime-time blow his triumph is empty.
And Boris has changed tack. Before the session he mugs up on a few statistics which he rattles off whenever he wants. And he begins every reply with a swaggering, big-gorilla taunt.
‘Mr Speaker he is simply ignorant of the facts!’
He accused Starmer of ‘feigned ignorance.’ And he found him guilty of hypocrisy: ‘I must say I find that peculiar because I’ve given him repeated briefings on this matter.’
And he wrong-footed Starmer accidentally after asking him to support the Government’s efforts to limit the death-toll. ‘I hope he will abandon his slightly negative tone.’
Starmer got up, all glassy-eyed indignation. But he said nothing. And when he spoke it came out strangely. ‘Thirty-four thousand is not negative. Is negative.’
What did that mean? Aware that he was talking gibberish, he bucked himself up. ‘Of course I’m going to ask about that,’ he said in his strange, tinkly whisper. ‘And quite right too.’
What had rattled him was the suggestion that he was politicising the coronavirus death toll. Boris too committed a howler which will doubtless attract the scorn of grammarians, logicians and professors of English syntax. Here it is. ‘I can tell him also by the first of June, already, we have recruited 24,000 trackers, and by the first of June we will have 25,000.’
Pretty daft. But daft enough to make the news? Hardly. Only one moment stood out. And it came from the chair.
Lindsay Hoyle usually moderates PMQs in a dignified silence but today he showed us his flip-side. Literally, he flipped. Starmer was working though his compilation of statistics and Matt Hancock was trying to break his flow with random honks and heckles. Hoyle put a stop to this: ‘The secretary of state for health doesn’t need to advise the leader of the opposition during this.’
Hancock retorted with something inaudible. And Hoyle rocketed off his seat, barking and flapping like an Alsatian with a wasp in its nostril. ‘Sorry!?’ he yelled. ‘Do you want to leave the chamber? If you want to give way to someone else I’m more than happy.’
That was box-office.