Today the prime minister tried out his ‘spoonful of sugar’ routine. Boris has decided that no political problem exists that can’t be solved with a dose of bonhomie, a chorus of ‘build, build, build’, and a £600 billion bung to rocket-boost the economy. This ramshackle strategy was all he brought to PMQs. Against him Sir Keir Starmer was keen to display his world-class mastery of detail. The king of the quibblers was on top form. At least by his own standards.
His goal was to blame the PM for the heatwave that recently brought thousands of super-spreaders to Bournemouth beach. Having sleuthed his way through Boris’s recent utterances he found a phrase, ‘show some guts’, issued to authorities in seaside towns. He tried to link this to the impromptu Bournemouth beach-party.
‘Does he regret being so flippant?’ said Sir Keir. He pronounced ‘flippant’ as if it were a career-terminating scandal to make an error of tone. Boris decided to out-haughty his accuser. ‘The right honourable gentleman does not distinguish himself with his question,’ he scolded.
Sir Keir then charged him with bungling the Leicester lockdown. Labour’s Miss Marple had unearthed an incriminating clue in the marginalia. The city authority thought it had 80 infected citizens. The true figure was 944. ‘That may sound technical,’ said Sir Keir, reading out the numbers.
Why ‘technical’? A school kid could understand these figures. Sir Keir is so keen to congratulate himself on his obsessive nit-pickery that he forgets his real mission – to turn policies into slogans and to translate a government blunder into a damning phrase. Superwonk Sir Keir lacks the Saatchi & Saatchi touch. He can’t find words that grab you by the scruff of the neck.
Once the Labour leader had quibbled his way through his six questions, Boris unleashed a gobbet of well-rehearsed onomatopoeia. ‘They are the blockers, we are the builders,’ he recited. ‘We are the doers, they are the ditherers.’
Ian Blackford was next into the bear-pit. The SNP leader is always simmering with anger. Today the cauldron was boiling over. And he was showing his habitual confusion about the country whose independence he craves. His deep and abiding patriotism is not in doubt. What’s odd is that the great freedom-fighter always portrays Scotland as a sort of derelict workhouse where starving paupers are abused and exploited by chortling millionaire toffs in Westminster. Today he highlighted a specific element in this caricature. Laughter.
He complained to Boris that when a government apparatchik was being quizzed about Scottish subsidies, he emitted a noise suggestive of mirth. ‘The spokesperson laughed,’ said Blackford, trembling. ‘He laughed, Mr Speaker. That’s what this government thinks about funding for Scotland…They think it’s a joke.’
Honestly? Could a wayward chuckle by a faceless pen-pusher unseat the Prime Minister? Boris brushed it aside just like empty charge of ‘flippancy’ from Labour.
Sir Keir may have noticed that today, for the first time, he was outshone by a backbencher who delivered a tougher question than his leader. Stephen Doughty read out a list of job losses which are about to cripple the aviation industry. Swathes of world-class employees will shortly be fired by BA, Airbus and Rolls-Royce. The tally comes to 20,000. ‘What’s he going to do to protect them?’ demanded Doughty. ‘And we don’t want slogans or bluff or bluster.’
‘Build, build, build,’ said Boris. ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs.’
He’s not taking this seriously. Given the calibre of the opposition, why would he?