Sir Keir Starmer did a Greta at PMQs today. Without their leader, Labour invited Angela Rayner to duff up Boris in public. On her feet she announced that this would be ‘the Battle of Britain’. And she believed that ‘the whole country’ would be watching.
It was more like a game of hop-scotch between two flirtatious teenagers. The air zinged with puppy-love. ‘I congratulate her on her elevation,’ said Boris, eyeing her up with a Trumpian twinkle. Rayner couldn’t stop smiling as she made a joke about Keir Starmer’s absence which she blamed on failures in the testing system. ‘I heard he’s had a negative test,’ said Boris chattily. ‘I don’t quite know why he's not here.’
Getting down to business, Rayner tried a gotcha. ‘What is the average hourly rate of care-workers in this country?’ Easy for Boris. He trumpeted the virtues of the Tories’ national living wage. Rayner claimed this as a win. Hardly. She has two faults as an inquisitor. Her estimate of her own powers is exaggerated. And she can’t improvise new arguments if her pre-jotted questions become irrelevant. Boris was well prepared today and he gave long, meticulously detailed answers. Her dismay was palpable. ‘Oh. Has he finished?’ she said, after the PM had briefed the house about Britain’s top position in the European league of Covid-testing.
The session turned into pure Alice in Wonderland. Rayner accused Boris of breaking promises which he’d plainly kept. She said he hadn’t got a winter action plan. He’d just announced a winter action plan. She said that 62,000 people were being tested daily. He’d said that 240,000 were being tested daily. She asked him to deliver a funding package for care-homes. He’d just mentioned a £600 million care-home package. When she brought up birthing women who miss their husbands, he said, ‘I perfectly understand the point she makes. And she’s entirely right.’
How to find fault there? ‘I’ll take that as a yes,’ she said sniffily. Boris clearly enjoyed being pelted with Rayner's fluffy cushions . And his pleasure ought to have bothered her enormously. But it didn’t. After her sixth question, she sat down while Boris delivered a rhapsodic tribute to the resilience and good sense of the British people. She studied him throughout
There was more love to come for Boris. Mainly from his enemies. Three opposition MPs – Ed Davey, Wera Hobhouse and even Liverpool’s Ian Byrne – begged him to grant them a personal audience. Lesser-known MPs are eager for a tete-a-tete with Boris because their constituents frequently ask them, ‘what’s he really like?’. And they’re embarrassed to admit that they’ve never met him.
His popularity in the country explains why so many in the house resent him. He’s the only MP who would walk out of parliament and into a job hosting a Saturday-night TV talk-show. They all know that. Being amusing and well-liked is a sin some MPs can’t forgive.