Well that was different. Boris arrived at PMQs as if he were modelling for one of his cartoons. The strands of his famous hairdo were standing up like the quills of a cornered hedgehog. Had he just placed his thumb in a power-socket to get an energy boost?
Sir Keir was waiting for him, inscrutable, serpent-like, coiled for the kill. Right now the Labour leader has a host of juicy attack-lines to choose from. But Sir Keir loves a problem crammed with facts and figures and intricate chronologies. Today he and his super-wonks had found just the sort of issue they crave.
The test-and-trace system managed to lose 16,000 positive results which meant that 48,000 people were unreachable for eight days. Sir Keir set this out with icy precision. ‘A very basic mistake,’ he scolded. Lives had been jeopardised, he went on, his lips tightening unpleasantly.
Time for Boris to self-immolate. Instead, he smoothly explained that the snag had been swiftly resolved and that an extra 800 staff had been sent to the front-line.
‘The missing data-points do not change in any way our assessment of the epidemiology,’ he stated calmly. Over to Sir Keir who had a soundbite all ready and burnished. ‘Intergalactic incompetence,’ he said, which hardly described what he’d just heard.
Boris stood up. He insisted that ‘the regional approach, combined with national measures, works.’ Then he decided to out-drone the school swot by tediously reciting the infection-rates per 100,000 people in three northern cities. Liverpool, 497, Newcastle, 422, Manchester, 522. He sounded like a Soviet newscaster announcing the turnip harvest.
Sir Keir hadn’t expected this. When Boris is a shambles, Sir Keir triumphs. But when Boris is in control, Sir Keir is clueless. He grew petulant.
‘It just won’t wash,’ he pouted. Then he delivered a scripted metaphor from the unlikely realm of the road traffic accident.
‘The prime minister hurtles towards a car crash and looks back in the mirror and says, “What’s all that about?"'
Jeers greeted this tasteless quip. Boris retaliated over the rule of six. ‘He supported it. He went on Nick Ferrari and said, “I support the rule of six”. But last night Labour abstained on the rule of six.’
This was even trickier for Sir Keir. So he improvised. He tried something entirely new – theatrical condescension.
‘Let me take this slowly for him… The government is messing it up and it’s our duty to point it out.’
‘Let me take this slowly.’ The lifeboat captain explaining the drill to a dotty pensioner. Not a winning tactic. Perhaps not as bad as the car-crash gag but these flourishes are bound to undermine Sir Keir’s chief asset, his niceness, his suburban likeability. Today we got a glimpse of something else. A mean streak.
As Sir Keir asked his next question, Boris shifted and chuntered, visibly ignoring what was being said. Sir Keir halted.
‘Prime Minister. If you listened to the question we might get on better.’
That sounded like a quote from a marriage guidance session. This was an odd performance from Sir Keir. In tiny but unmistakeable ways he lost his cool.
He hasn’t learned how to adapt to the fact that Boris has learned to adapt. When he first took the top job, Boris indulged his instinct to wing it and have fun at PMQs. That turned out to be too risky. He now arrives with a brain full of data which he sprays in all directions. This chaff protects him.
Today, in addition, he’ll have spotted that Sir Keir has quite a temper. His chain is short. Boris will yank it.