Barristers say there are two types of performers in court. The rhinos use brash, crude, overpowering blows. The snakes are subtle, unpredictable and deadly. Today at PMQs, the two beasts met.
Boris came out of the jungle at full charge.
‘I think the honourable gentleman has been stunned by the success of the test and trace operation,’ he bellowed. He was responding to Sir Keir Starmer’s criticism of the government’s testing regime.
‘Contrary to his prognostications of gloom,’ Boris went on, ‘it has got up and running much faster than expected.’
Sir Keir, all serpentine cunning, asked him about the failure of the app to trace every relevant contact. Boris thrashed and snorted.
‘I wonder whether he can name a single country in the world that has a functioning contact-tracing app. Because there isn’t one.’
‘Germany,’ said Sir Keir, ‘June 15. Twelve million downloads.’
Whoops. But Boris didn’t care. He carried on stomping and headbutting his opponent. In a spasm of overexcitement, he accused Sir Keir of lying.
‘Misleading us on a key point’ was his phrase. Up leapt the Speaker. ‘No one misleads,’ he ruled.
Boris produced a second opinion. ‘He is inadvertently giving a false impression,’ he said. Which is the same thing.
And then Sir Keir undid him with quiet, lethal precision. Last week Boris had claimed that child poverty was contracting. Sir Keir quoted an unimpeachable source which found Boris guilty of submitting an untruth to the house.
Did Boris care? Not in the least. He harked back to Sir Keir’s equivocation over the reopening of schools and challenged the Labour leader to say if it was safe for kids to return to class.
‘Yes,’ said Sir Keir, simply. And he left it at that. ‘Yes’ is pretty unequivocal. But ‘yes’ is also rather a quiet sound. Sir Keir didn’t bluster or boast about his ‘yes.’ He didn’t turn it into a great fanfare of endorsement for the benefits of education. He just said ‘yes.’ And he followed it up by quibbling over some abstruse government statement from a fortnight ago.
Boris pounced. With complete and shameless dishonesty he pretended that Sir Keir’s ‘yes’ had not been uttered.
‘He still can’t make up his mind,’ he cried, as he scampered up a mole-hill of feigned superiority. ‘He still won’t say whether children should go back to school.’
Sir Keir sat and watched himself being fibbed about. A frown of deep hurt creased his fact-crammed forehead. By this stage, he had no questions left and Boris was free to roast him without fear of a comeback.
'It's absolutely infamous that he comes to this house one day and says he supports the programme and then the next day not to confirm that he wants kids to go to school now.'
Blatant cheating. Both of them knew it. But it was too late for Sir Keir. He’s certainly a class act. But he’s up against a circus act. And he hasn’t worked out how to score a win and register it as a victory in the public mind.
Labour’s analysts will rejoice at Sir Keir’s six-nil triumph today. They shouldn’t get too excited. The killer-clip in which he exposes Boris’s fibs is a hopeless piece of political theatre. Only an anorak would salivate over Sir Keir saying this:
“Last week, the Prime Minister claimed that 'both absolute and relative child poverty have declined'. On Monday the Office of the Children’s Commissioner said that statement was 'mostly false'.
Exquisite detective work but it doesn't make the heart beat faster.