Angela Rayner is formidable. Until today, that adjective never suited Labour’s deputy leader. She can be combative, authentic, eye-catching and crowd-pleasing — and quite annoying. Clearly she’s as tough as a vintage Land Rover. But at PMQs, she added statesmanship to her roster of qualities.
The session was sparsely attended. The press are in Glasgow covering the Frequent Flyers Summit, aka COP26. Boris came south, by jet of course, to put in a stint at Westminster.
He was met by Rayner, soberly dressed and steely-eyed. Her tactics were well prepared in advance. She used feints and misdirection to keep Boris guessing and she varied long rhetorical assaults with punchy killer-blows.
She began with a couple of questions about the alleged misconduct of Owen Paterson. Her third question developed this point and then turned into a generalisation about the Tories ‘wallowing in sleaze’. She tossed out some chaff about rising bills in the budget. And then:
“What’s the projected tax increase for the average family over the next five years?
Boris hadn’t a clue. He might as well have been asked to name Sheffield Wednesday’s reserve goalie.
‘What I can tell her,’ he said, and then waffled about the proportion of taxes paid by high-earners.
Rayner rose and coolly supplied the figure, ‘Three thousand pounds.’ Then another flash of steel. How much will the chancellor’s new tax breaks be worth to bankers?
No answer again. Rayner: ‘Four billion.’ And she compared this with the extra costs heaped on families. A casual viewer will have seen a powerful and determined inquisitor asking Boris why he wants rich bankers to get richer while poor workers get poorer.
Then she mentioned a clause buried in the budget’s small print. ‘A cut of £1 billion on day-to-day defence spending’. She alleged that this figure had been ‘hidden.' It sounded like fraud.
Boris fared better here. ‘It’s incredible that we are now hearing this,’ he said with comic indignation. ‘They’d have pulled us out of Nato.’ This was a reference to an old Jeremy Corbyn policy but he supplemented it with a fresh accusation. Jabbing his finger at the opposition, he shouted,
‘She wanted to abolish the British army.’
‘She’? Who was ‘she’? Rayner was flanked by Emily Thornberry and Lisa Nandy.
‘The woman sitting next to her!’ said Boris, narrowing it down but not identifying the surrender-monkey by name. Nandy was shouting her denials so hard that her mask almost flew off. So it was her, obviously. Or she thought so.
Rayner stuck to her plan. She scolded Boris for lecturing her on defence and she mentioned a disabled constituent, a veteran of Afghanistan, whose benefits had been docked after he failed to reach a distant assessment centre.
‘Shame! Shame!’ cried Labour MPs. And doubtless many a Tory muttered the same curse under their breath.
At the end, Boris asserted his dominance by offering his victorious opponent a condescending pat on the head.
‘I don’t want to spread dissension in her party,’ he said, ‘but I think you’ll agree she has a lot more energy than the member for Holborn and St Pancras.’
Poor Sir Keir. One imagines him in his quarantine-suite gently sobbing into a box of Kleenex. How galling to see his understudy moving into his personal field of expertise and showing him up as a leaden, predictable and lifeless has-been. Naturally Boris will turn this into a running gag. Next time we can expect him to ask Sir Keir across the despatch-box why he doesn’t let his sparky second-in-command deputise for him more often.
It'll be fun watching Boris turn into Rayner's greatest fan.