Lloyd Evans

Starmer is finally getting the hang of PMQs

Starmer is finally getting the hang of PMQs
(Credit: House of Commons)
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No prime minister since Tony Blair enjoys being in power as much as Boris. The notion that he might be kicked out by a nameless gang of cabinet lightweights is fanciful. But it makes for grabby headlines.

Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer can sense that his star is on the rise. And he’s improving. At PMQs he asked shorter questions and delivered a couple of nifty satirical thrusts that inspired his MPs. Early on, he tilted his head towards the Tory benches which were better attended than last Wednesday.

‘I see they’ve turned up this week.’ Cue howls of mirth from Labour. Moments later, he lobbed this banger at Boris. ‘I think he’s lost his place in his notes again.’ Another wave of laughter surged across the chamber.

Sir Keir has never shown such adroitness at the despatch-box. Too often he plays the know-all or the forensic anorak who memorises every detail of his brief beforehand. It never works. Nor does his habit of shaking his head and using a dearie-me-prime-minister tone. His instinct is to scold Boris like a staff-nurse catching a patient smoking a Woodbine on the fire-escape. But voters don’t like petulance or nagging. Today, he seemed more relaxed, more immersed in the sweat and dust of the ring.

The substance of their debate was the forced sale of homes to pay for ‘social care.’ That innocuous phrase is a euphemism for ‘packing granny off to a home instead of letting her age gracefully in the bosom of the family.’

Sir Keir alleged that the Tories will force free-holders to flog their homes to cover the costs of care. No, they won’t, said Boris. Yes, they will, said Sir Keir. They circled the question, repeatedly accusing each other of wilful misinterpretation.

Sir Keir span it as a class-war issue and accused Boris of robbing the workers to shore up the assets of millionaires. Not at all, said Boris, with theatrical condescension. He suggested that Sir Keir was, perhaps, a bit thick.

‘I will try for the third time to clear this up in the befuddled mind of the Rt. Hon gentleman’.

The Tories, he explained are tackling a policy gap that Labour failed to plug when they were in office. ‘It’s left over from the Attlee government!’ Then he changed the subject to embarrass Sir Keir.

‘I was in a state of complete innocence about this,’ he said, his face broadening into a feline smirk. ‘I discover that he campaigned against HS2 – and said it would be 'devastating'.’

Boris has recovered from Monday’s Peppa-shambles. He needed to show ‘grip’ today and he succeeded. It was a rowdy, enjoyable score-draw. Neither man stumbled. Neither landed a killer-blow.

The SNP’s Ian Blackford delivered his weekly impersonation of a Tory-bashing machine designed by a robot. He invoked Tory sleaze, Tory tax-hikes and Tory broken promises. Tory this, Tory that. The Hebridean Humpty never causes the PM any trouble because he never focuses on a solitary issue. Instead he mounts the pulpit and rambles through a toxic screed whose sour flavour makes him seem haughty.

Sir Keir had the best moment. Leaning across the despatch-box, with a smile of fake concern, he said,

‘Is everything OK, Prime Minister?’

It was Napoleon who warned his generals not to fight the same enemy too many times, ‘or you will teach him all your art of war.’ Slow-learning Sir Keir is adopting the tactics of his opponent. At last he’s realised that PMQs is street-theatre and not a theological disputation in the Vatican library. He’s getting it. Boris should be worried.