Travel chaos damn, Tory’s front bench had shown up in effect. Ministers needed space, crammed in like miserable commuters on a replacement bus. Conor Burns and Priti Patel, squeezed together in an awkward forced embrace, did their best not to elbow each other in the side.
The Labor benches looked less crowded – maybe a few were still out and mark? On Tuesday, Arthur Scargill had made the Tories a solid one by appearing on RMT strike lines, fresh from his grace and favor flat on the Barbican and wearing his iconic Battle of Orgreave baseball cap for full brand recognition. Twenty-five Labor MPs had followed in his footsteps.
But Chris Elmore, who had the first question, opened with something completely more personal – Carrie Johnson, the plum FCO job, and the mystery of the disappearing news story. Had the Prime Minister, he asked, “ever considered the appointment of his current spouse to a government post?”
The Tory benches shook, but the prime minister, who turned pink only for a moment, returned to his well-oiled formula to ward off difficult questions. He accused Elmore of dwelling on “non-existent jobs in the media,” and put him in filibuster mode by launching an off-topic rant about the government’s biggest hits, delivered in a double-fast time reminiscent of a modern major general .
This he did in all the difficult moments, which sometimes meant blasting his words. A brag about “fiscal firepower” turned into “physical firepower” – though the prime minister in justice has never had too many problems at that point, at least in the Genghis Khan effort. Sometimes his words were utterly unspeakable; a series of devouring turkey sounds marked by the strange “bah!”
For once, Keir Starmer had put some water in it. Grant Shapps, he said, was more focused on “working on his spreadsheet that tracks the prime minister’s unpopularity” than trying to find a solution to the disruption. His nasal grumbling about bankers’ bonuses felt like a bit of a Miliband-era tribute, but at least it wasn’t completely lifeless.
That The problem for Sir Keir was the annoying strikes. At the first mention of them, the Tory backs carp as trained seals and pointed across the floor. “Your strikes!” they roared. Kate Osborne of Jarrow, a PPS from Labor who had ignored the strike ban, scolded executive pay and speculated about a general strike. If Starmer had hoped to stay out of danger, safely entrenched in the waiting room, it would not have helped.
“If she wants to support the working people of this country, I can suggest she get off the line!” roared the Prime Minister to manic cheers from his colleagues. Any mention of strikes elicited screams of ecstasy from party believers. So too “leveling”, which appeared so many times that the only rational explanation was a kind of competition among Red Wall MPs over who could shoe it most into their own (and others’) speeches. After a close run, Alex Stafford of Rother Valley took the palm with four “level-ups” in a single question.
Ian Blackford looked strangely subdued, which is not his style. The SNP spokesman usually prefers to go into fire-and-sulfur mode at the first hint of scandal – by holding on to Westminster’s moral foolishness as a sort of appropriate, last-day John Knox. Carriegate would have piqued his interest under normal circumstances. Still for some reason – maybe and Patrick Grady-shaped – Blackford mumbled an unusually dry question about economic growth and was almost drowned out by scorn.
It was one of those PMQs that left everyone who saw it feeling a few IQ points dumber at the end. Einstein would have turned into Stephen Fry; Stephen Fry into Forrest Gump. As is often the case, the biggest winners were the people who did not tune in.