A glimpse of normality returned to PMQs today. For once the pandemic didn’t dominate. And Sir Keir tried a new tactic. He hammered Boris on a single issue. Nurse’s pay. Finally he’s realised that he should look for a nasty bruise and punch it again and again.
Boris had memorised a counter-attack which bristled with impressive statistics. Starting salaries for nurses have increased by 12.8 per cent in the last three years. Students can avail of two types of bursaries worth either £3k or £5k. An extra 10,600 nurses are already on the wards. ‘And in one year alone there are another 49,000 people working in our NHS.’
Sir Keir accused the PM of bad faith. ‘Two years ago he made a promise… a minimum pay-rise of 2.1 per cent.’
Boris dealt with this instantly.
‘He voted against the document in question which is the crowning absurdity of his point.’
Sir Keir, now weaponless, turned petulant.
‘Mr Speaker. My mother was a nurse. My sister was a nurse,’ he cried. This reduced us to the level of the playground. ‘My dad’s in the SAS. He can put your dad in a death-grip.’
Then the Labour leader tried a bit of satire. His team of comedians had been toiling on this gag all week so Sir Keir was under pressure to honour their talent and industry. He set it up nicely by reminding us that Boris has just lavished ‘£2.6m on a Downing Street TV studio and £200,000 on wallpaper’. Then the punchline:
‘I know charity starts at home but the prime minister’s taking it too literally.’
Nothing. Not a peep. Not even the sniff of a laugh. The chamber was as quiet as a locked-down library. Poor Sir Keir. But he shouldn’t blame himself. The material was feeble. He needs to put out an open call to Labour’s members and invite them to submit ‘a quip for Sir Keir’ each week. The winner will get a tub of organic pesto signed by the shadow cabinet.
Next it was the turn of the Conservative backbenchers who behaved like a troupe of monkeys fawning over their trainer. Tory after Tory stood up to heap praise on Boris for splurging squillions on neglected towns and derelict railway lines. One solitary voice marred the chorus of adulation. Colum Eastwood, of the SDLP, questioned Boris’s plan to build a ‘fantasy £33 billion bridge’ from Scotland to Northern Ireland. An ‘imposition’, he said, that will have to ‘go through miles of unexploded munitions and radioactive waste’.
Boris seemed genuinely gobsmacked. ‘I’m amazed at his negativity,’ he said, smiling in wonder. And there ended another frictionless interrogation. It’s like watching a lumberjack being pelted with twigs. No wonder Boris looks so happy. His backbenchers are jabbering zombies. His opponents are clueless flounderers.
Lately a new custom has arisen at PMQs. The session goes into injury-time as MPs attempt to correct factual errors. This week John Ashworth, shadow health spokesman, tried to score after the final whistle.
‘Point of order!’
The Speaker checked whether the challenge was legitimate.
‘Is it connected to prime minister’s questions?’
'Yes,’ said Ashworth, not surprisingly ruling his own intervention admissible.
He contradicted the PM’s claim that Labour had voted against a rise in nurse’s pay. And he demanded that the Speaker haul Boris back in to withdraw his remark.
‘That’s not a point of order,’ said the Speaker, ‘It’s a point of clarification.’ Which is fine. But he must have realised this as soon as Ashworth started to speak. Why didn’t he shut him up earlier?
The rules are getting muddled. No one knows what a point of order is. Not even the Speaker.