It was all a bit end-of-term. The last prime minister’s questions before Christmas,, with the two main adversaries doing little more than going through the motions. Naught’s had, all’s spent. But even on days like this, Keir Starmer can win at a canter. Quite simply, he’s easily identifiable as a grown-up. Which is more than can be said for Rishi Sunak.
Rish! may be very good at being a tech bro. At being a forty-something with more cash than he can possibly spend. But he’s a terrible politician. Hopeless at appearing genuine. Hopeless at even knowing what it is he thinks he is supposed to believe. We’re long past the point where people started wondering what – if anything – Sunak was doing as leader. Even parties in terminal decline need to maintain a performative arts function.
Not even his closest allies – or the people paid to be his closest allies – seem to believe in Sunak any more. Rather, they scratch their heads, bewildered that yet again they have fallen for a broken mirage. The hope of the end of October so quickly displaced by the pall of despair. Jeremy Hunt sits lost in thought, as if willing himself to be elsewhere. Looking for a way of portraying an inflation figure of 10.7% as a Tory success story.
Michael Gove stands apart near the speaker’s chair, as he has done for many months now. He has a lean and hungry look. Such men are dangerous. He keeps himself to himself. Lost, even. Refusing or unable to engage with others. A man in search of the exit.
Dominic Raab has been one of the few to publicly show much enthusiasm for Sunak at PMQs, but even he has gone silent. Though that could be because he has just found out that five further bullying allegations have been made against him to add to the three that are already being investigated. The net is closing in on Psycho.
Worst of all, even the backbenchers have more or less given up on their leader. For some weeks, it’s been a three-line whip to attend PMQs, and the Conservatives still can’t entice enough MPs in to the Commons to fill all the available space. The cheers as Sunak walk in are increasingly hollow.
Nor are all Tory MPs entirely sympathetic to the cause. The first question from John Stevenson was on what the government proposed to do to get the trains running properly on the Avanti West Coast line. Rish! didn’t have a clue – just a few sentences to let everyone know this was completely out of his control.
Almost inevitably, Starmer led on the nurses’ strike. On Thursday, nurses would be walking out for the first time in their union’s 100-year history. Wasn’t that a source of shame for the government? Could Sunak not even be bothered to sit down and talk? That’s all they had demanded to call off the industrial action. Even for him, Rish!’s response was tin-eared. He’d done more than enough already; given them a below-inflation pay rise of 3% last year. They should have been ecstatic.
Starmer doubled down. Alex had had his gall bladder operation cancelled. His Mum was listening to PMQs hoping for Sunak to offer some reassurance. So would he like to say something to her?
He would. He would like to say that there were thousands of kids like Alex waiting for operations and he should just learn to take his turn. He was sick of patients phoning politicians hoping to jump the queue. There was a reason the NHS was on its knees. It wasn’t just an accident that the Tories had run it into the ground. All things would become apparent in due course. Just trust the process. And if some people had to die in the meantime, then the country should just accept that. Them’s the breaks.
Rish! was far from finished. There were other things he had to get off his chest while he was about it. Labour was just in hock to the union paymasters. It’s a wonder he didn’t say ‘barons’ like some Tory caricature from the 1970s. This was the RCN, after all. The most unmilitant union you could imagine. Hell, not even the RMT is affiliated to the Labour party. And thinking you sound in control telling the country the cancer backlog has just got longer because you won’t talk to the nurses is simply deranged. It’s as if he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Or mistakes idiocy for strength.
And another thing … Covid. What? You tell me. I have no idea. But Sunak apparently did. Starmer had never mentioned the pandemic, but Rish! knew a good conspiracy theory when he saw it and Labour were entirely to blame for Covid. They had made the virus in Wes Streeting’s office. And left to their own devices, Labour would have left the country in lockdown for the rest of the decade. Just mad.
Starmer closed on a sincere note about Ukraine, thereby depriving Sunak of his closing riff for the second week running. There again, judging by what had gone before, the Labour leader was probably doing him a favour. The session ended uncomfortably with the swivel-eyed Danny Kruger begging Rish! to ditch international law. His argument seemed to be that the UK had drafted the UN resolutions on refugees, so it was fine for us to disown them. Not even Sunak would go that far. Not yet, anyway.
Later that afternoon, Sunak and Starmer were back together, this time in a freezing cold Westminster Hall, where their presence seemed to have initially gone unnoticed by the king as he came to look at the new plaque to commemorate the queen’s lying in state. It was an odd affair, with no one saying anything or looking that interested.
There again, it hadn’t really been about Rish! and Keir. It hadn’t even been about Charles. It had really been all about Matt Hancock. A chance for everyone to agree what a marvellous job he had done during the pandemic. How toned he was looking. How lucky Gina was. The relief when he turned up was palpable. A murmur rippled through the MPs and peers gathered for the occasion. Lucky queen. It was just what she would have wanted.