Well I don’t know about you, but I definitely heard a nasty slur flung from one leader to another during the parliamentary debate on the Sue Gray report. Not Boris Johnson’s claim that Keir Starmer had failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile while he was Director of Public Prosecutions. That was merely a pathetic, unbecoming, unwise and unfair insult thrown from a position of weakness and unattractive impetuosity. No, the insult that had me taking a sharp intake of breath was one made moments earlier by Starmer towards Johnson. It ran as follows:
'Just as he has done throughout his life, he has damaged everyone and everything around him along the way.'
This was Starmer seeking to eviscerate the Prime Minister’s character by bringing his famously complicated private life and his conduct in general before politics into the fray. The implication was that Johnson had damaged his own previous wives and grown-up children by his grotesquely selfish behaviour; that the man was what used to be described in polite company as an 'S H, one T'.
There was no calibration in Starmer’s remarks either. He didn’t say the PM had damaged 'many people and many things around him' over the years, but everyone and everything throughout his life. And that simply isn’t true.
There is no denying Johnson’s conduct has damaged some people. Indeed, Westminster is often awash with gossip about how certain Johnson family members feel about him having left his former wife Marina for the then Carrie Symonds.
But he has hardly damaged his new wife, with whom he has two children. Or the many Daily Telegraph readers who have richly enjoyed his columns down the years. Or the readers of this magazine during his successful editorship of it. Or the millions of Brexiteers who saw him thwart an establishment that was half-way to blocking the referendum result from being implemented when he moved into Downing Street.
I can’t have been the only one to notice the highly personal nature of Starmer’s attack. Indeed other commentators also mentioned it in their articles about the debate in the ensuing hours and days.
But the oddest thing is that a growing number of Tory MPs can be counted in the category of those who have condemned Johnson’s attack on Starmer without having bothered to condemn Starmer’s much more vicious and unqualified attack on their own party leader just beforehand.
There is certainly an argument that high-minded Conservative MPs should honourably express their disdain for Johnson’s original implication that the failure to prosecute Savile was Starmer’s direct fault. Which it wasn’t. But for them to focus their criticism entirely on the Prime Minister, while not even bothering to take issue with Starmer’s provocative abuse of him a few seconds earlier is very telling. It would save time were they simply to admit that they hold Johnson in contempt and are trying their damnedest to get rid of him via any possible means.
One might expect this of dispossessed former ministers on the backbenches: the Julian Smiths and Tobias Ellwoods putting out lofty statements underlining their own virtue at Johnson’s expense while neglecting to offer any criticism of Starmer’s approach.
But when serving Cabinet ministers fall into a similar pattern of behaviour things have come to a pretty pass. Was the bloodless 'I wouldn’t have said it' formula that Rishi Sunak came out with a balanced or sufficient response? Did he really not hear what Starmer had just said about his own boss? Or perhaps he agreed with it, in which case how can he honourably continue to sit in Johnson’s Cabinet?
The Chancellor, along with others in senior Cabinet posts, should be careful. If Sunak does not remember whose side he is supposed to be on in the unceasing battle against a ruthless Labour machine then the Tory grassroots members he is so keen to woo will hold it against him. And pop will go his own hopes of inspiring durable loyalty in the ranks if he is ever called upon to lead.