PMQs thundered back to life today. Boris was clearly thrilled to be there. Sir Keir seemed to be up to his eyeballs in self-doubt.
Evidently the Labour leader preferred the old pandemic days when the chamber was like a coroner’s court or a half-empty library at Lambeth Palace. The atmosphere back then was calm, studious and considered. This afternoon the playground riot was in full swing. It opened with a Boris special. He was asked by Craig MacKinlay if the next generation could seriously rely on cars powered by Duracell batteries and by houses heated with warm zephyrs that rise by magic through air-vents in the floor.
Boris crushed this cynical view and he urged MacKinlay to ‘embrace the Promethean spirit of technological optimism.’
The chamber howled with laughter at that. But Sir Lindsay Hoyle seemed to misjudge the mood. The Speaker hasn’t much experience of chairing a full-throttle PMQs and he kept interrupting the free-flowing debate, asking MPs to stop shouting themselves silly.
This misses the point. Passion is what makes these roasting sessions so gripping. ‘I want to hear the questions and the answers,’ claimed Sir Lindsay, but not many will share that view. The contest is won and lost according to the temperature in the room, the pitch of excitement or despair, the breezy swagger of this leader or the defensive caution of that one. Viewers judge these things instinctively. The words spoken are secondary.
Sir Keir attacked the rise in National Insurance and rehashed an old quote from 2002 when Boris, then a backbencher, had denounced NI increases as ‘regressive.’ But Boris’s team of elves had been at work too. They unearthed an opposition proposal from 2018 calling for a National Insurance increase specifically to fund the NHS. Back then, Labour hailed it as ‘a Beveridge Moment.’ Boris taunted Sir Keir.
‘Is Labour going to vote against the new Beveridge Moment tonight?’
This enabled him to dodge Sir Keir’s trickier question. Would the extra cash help the NHS to clear its waiting-lists? Apparently not. Starmer failed to exploit Boris’s refusal to answer.
The SNP’s Ian Blackford rose to speak. His questions, and his entire being, seem to be saturated in the direst enmity. This itself is rather puzzling. He represents the constituency of Skye which is as lovely a spot as any on earth. Yet there seems to be no lakeland view and no mountain peak that can soothe Blackford’s troubled breast.
Having spent his summer festering in paradise, he unleashed a volley of curses at the PM. The Tories, he said, were ‘fleecing Scottish families’ with another wave of austerity. Boris was intent on ‘balancing the books on the backs of the poor and the young’. He added that the policy that had been rushed through ‘without consultation’.
The more Blackford rages, the sweeter Boris becomes.
‘He says there was no consultation,’ answered the PM mildly. ‘But I much enjoy my conversations with members of the Scottish administration, and one thing they asked for was more money for the NHS.’
Boris wants to justify his tax-hike by claiming that his left-wing opponents support it. That will work, just about, for now – at least during a parliamentary bunfight. But will it placate voters in the real world?