A tasty duel at PMQs today. The party leaders were absent and their understudies, Dominic Raab and Angela Rayner, traded insults across the dispatch box. Their styles are polar opposites. Raab is laconically deadly. Rayner is brashly entertaining. And their sartorial choices reflect their different approaches. She wore a chic white frock offset with black side panels – quietly fetching. He was in a dull, slush-grey suit – a ruthless advocate reporting for duty.
Battle commenced. Rayner claimed that Boris’s overseas trip was proof that he had ‘fled the country’. And she mocked his promise to remain in office for years on end. ‘Limping on until 2030. Will the cabinet prop him for this long?’
Raab’s lip curled sarcastically. ‘We want this prime minister to go on a lot longer than she wants the leader of the Labour party to go on.’ A decent hit. Rayner flashed back. ‘Britain can’t stomach [Boris] for another eight years. And his backbenchers can’t stomach him for another eight minutes.’ Raab turned again to Rayner’s chief vulnerability. She supports her leader in public but privately longs for his downfall. And Sir Keir’s recent repudiation of Labour’s 2019 manifesto election is an obvious sign of rudderless confusion.
‘He’s only been in in the job for two years,’ scoffed Raab. He quoted Tony Blair’s fears about ‘a gaping hole in Labour’s policy offer.’ He spotted Rayner smirking. ‘A smile is coming over her face,’ he said. ‘And all the while she’s revelling in it.’
That got it right. Rayner struck back by pointing out that the Tories had become the specialists in high-tax low-growth economics. By 2030, she said, working people would pay an extra ‘£500 billion in tax’. Luckily no one was around to fact-check that colossal prediction. Raab tried the class-war playbook and accused Rayner of ‘sipping champagne at the Glyndebourne Festival and listening to opera.’
‘Champagne socialism’, he crowed. Meanwhile the Tories, countered Rayner, were sitting ‘at the banqueting table’ and not ‘at the negotiating table’ attempting to end the rail strikes. The strikes? Raab was primed and ready. He recited Rayner’s shifting attitudes towards the stoppages. At first, she called the strikes, ‘lose-lose’. Then she claimed that the workers had no choice. But when asked on camera if she liked the RMT, she said, ‘I have to go now, I’ve got a train to catch.’
The Tories enjoyed that so much that they yelled for more. And there was more. Rayner’s claim that the government broke its promise to increase the defence budget brought this crisp rebuttal. Raab told her that UK investment stands at 2.3 per cent of GDP which makes us ‘the largest military spender in Europe.’ It’s unwise to wrong-foot the bean counter on such details. In reply, she called on Raab to lead a putsch against Boris. ‘Grow a backbone and tell him his time is up.’
This was great stuff. Pure panto of course. Not politics. The big swinging handbag versus the scrivener’s lethal stiletto. And it was a lot more fun than the uneven contests between the plodding Starmer and the bulldozing Boris. Both candidates at today’s audition came through with flying colours. No backbencher can have failed to notice that these deputies are the equal of their masters.