That was a barmy idea. Sir Keir Starmer led on macroeconomics at PMQs and attacked the government over its economic failures. But next week’s elections are for local authorities which have no influence over the national coffers. It’s as if Sir Keir wanted to change the subject and talk about anything other than Labour’s ability to deliver local services.
He seemed ill-at-ease and disengaged. In need of a battery recharge. Very little stomach for the fight. And he relied on pre-scripted insults rather than improvising his comebacks. When Boris defended the Tory record with a list of memorised statistics, Sir Keir jeered at him:
‘These must be the Oxford Union debating tactics we’ve heard so much about lately: failing to answer the question, rambling incoherently, and throwing in garbled metaphors. Powerful stuff, Prime Minister.’
Where did that come from? Boris had committed none of the faults mentioned by Sir Keir. There was weakness in the air.
And he trotted out his favourite remedy for soaring energy prices: a windfall tax on Big Oil. The wrong policy. And the wrong moment to bring it up. Local councils have no power to clobber BP or Shell with a tax-grab. It was obvious Sir Keir was dodging the issue of local authorities altogether.
Ditto his backbenchers who adopted the same don’t-mention-the-Labour-party tactic. They hammered Boris over Rishi’s tax-hikes and they complained about the cost of living squeeze, but none of them cited a single benefit delivered by a Labour council anywhere in the country. Extraordinary. The Labour party seems to know that the Labour party is hopeless at local government.
Champion whinger Ian Blackford demanded yet more money for hard-hit Scots. And Boris thanked him for implicitly praising ‘the vital strength of our economic union and the importance of support from the UK Treasury.’
Boris twinkled. Blackford sulked. He brought up the leadership issue and said that most Tory MPs know that he’s due for the chop any day. Cue a ripple of laughter from the Tory rank and file. It was only a ripple but it was there. Boris returned fire at Blackford:
‘As for our respective political longevities, I wouldn’t like to bet on him outlasting me.’
Labour’s Vicky Foxcroft gave the game away when she asked to meet Boris in person to discuss a long-term healthcare problem. But hang on. That’s not the story. The line from the opposition is that a Tory wipe-out on 5 May will humiliate the PM and trigger a leadership crisis. So why is a Labour MP so keen to meet a Prime Minister in the final days of his career?
Boris delivered a blistering closing speech and denounced Sir Keir as ‘a guy who is doomed to be a permanent spectator.’ Every Labour council, he said, ‘is a bankrupt shambles’. And he called them out by name. ‘Nottingham, bankrupt. Croydon, bankrupt…and Labour-run Hammersmith spent £27,000 on EU flags – even after the referendum.’
None of his so-called rivals could electrify the house like that. He has a habit of swivelling at the despatch box and catching the eye of Tory members who ask him a question. It’s amazing how warmly they all beam back when he favours them with his gaze. Is it true that every one of them despises him and longs for his downfall? Maybe the back-stab narrative is being exaggerated to give newspapers a ripping yarn to sell.