The PM defended his Home Secretary as opposition members tried to force her resignation, live on TV, at PMQs. Priti Patel, in a muted fuchsia dress, sat on the Treasury bench nestled snugly between Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Prime Minister. This casual arrangement cannot have been more deliberate. Here she is, announced the seating-plan, and here she stays.
Jeremy Corbyn tried first. He demanded ‘an independent investigation into the home secretary’s conduct led by an external lawyer.’ He also wanted ‘a date when the findings will be made public.’
Boris ducked this blatantly.
‘The home secretary is keeping this country safe. She believes in stopping the early release of offenders... and introducing a points-based immigration system.’
His plan was to turn the session into a party political broadcast. Every accusation levelled against Ms Patel would elicit a check-list of government initiatives spearheaded by the pocket-dynamo beside him.
He reminded everyone that John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, ‘has not yet apologised for his call for a member of our party to be lynched.’
The Tories opened their throats and roared like a pack of hyenas.
The Speaker called Matthew Pennycook, a youngish Labour backbencher. Tall, lean and pale, a face like a whetted blade. He’s the kind of super-fit whizz-kid who runs a half-marathon for breakfast. At dawn this morning, as he completed two circuits of Hyde Park, he was doubtless memorising the brilliant question with which he would later terminate the Home Secretary’s career. His phrasing covered all possible bases. His execution was faultless.
Referring carefully to the ‘Cabinet Office inquiry’, he put it to Boris that if Ms Patel’s conduct was found to have ‘fallen below the standard expected of a government minister, in any way, or on any occasion, can the Prime Minister confirm that she will resign or be removed from office?’
This icy gem was precision-sculpted to deliver a single outcome: a faltering admission from Boris that Ms Patel was indeed in grave and imminent danger of dismissal. But what did the PM do? He ignored the clever-clogs wording and tootled out another fanfare of support.
‘The Home Secretary is doing an outstanding job, delivering change, putting police out on the streets, cutting crime.’
One felt sorry for Pennycook. Too clinical, too cerebral, not a trace of human warmth or empathy. He could go far as an asset-stripper but in politics, he may struggle.
The Patel-bashing continued. The more they slugged her, the more he plugged her. Next came Thangam Debbonaire. Short, tough-looking, excellent vocal cords. She wore a bright green pashmina, the colour of vital energy, thrown around her torso like a battle-tunic. Her accusations were cut from simple, verb-less phrases. These granite slabs flew across the chamber.
‘The resignation of an experienced civil servant!’ she began. ‘The sacking of a government aide!’ Around her, a posse of tame munchkins chuntered and muttered their approval.
‘With this government,’ she went on, ‘it seems that allegations of bullying – or just being incompetent – get you promoted.’
Her glasses were quivering with rage at this point.
‘But for standing up to it you lose your job. What does this say about this Prime Minister?’
Powerful stuff. Clearly she has enough wattage to keep the lights burning in a small-to-medium sized town. But her anger may be a bit too salty for general consumption.
Boris’s reply was terse.
‘I loathe bullying,’ he said.
An observer from outer-space might ask a salient question: if these people hate bullying so much why do they practise it on each other in public, every day?