A Commons grilling

Boris vs Keir once again provides more heat than energy

It was a beautiful day in London, the sky clear and blue, the sun shining. Around the Palace of Westminster, the builders who swarm over the scaffolding trying to stop pieces of masonry from falling onto MPs were glowing in their high-vis overalls. It was a day to take lessons outside onto the green, or perhaps have drinks in the Number 10 garden.

Instead, we were stuck in the chamber of the House of Commons, watching tightly packed sweaty people shout at each other. They didn’t seem to mind. The mood was jolly and as Boris Johnson strode in to take his place he was greeted by a huge cheer.

The first question came from Labour’s Chris Elmore, who wanted to know about the reports of the Prime Minister’s efforts to get his wife onto the public sector payroll. “Be honest, Prime Minister, yes or no?”

The Conservative benches were furious that he had even raised this. Imagine someone having the temerity to question Boris Johnson’s honour! At times like this, you wonder whether they’re taking about a different Prime Minister, that we haven’t met. Interestingly, though, Johnson himself chose to not to answer the question.

He talked instead about all the people in the country who had got new jobs, presumably not all of them because the Prime Minister put a call in on their behalf. It was noteworthy that he didn’t simply deny the story. A year ago he might have, whatever the truth. Perhaps he really is growing into the job. Or perhaps he feels that one Commons investigation about misleading Parliament is enough.

Keir Starmer was in a happy mood too. He wanted to pay tribute to all of Thursday’s election candidates, “in particular the plucky Conservative candidate for Wakefield”. We had got to the source of his cheeriness: he must be very confident indeed that he’ll be welcoming a new MP on Friday morning.

We turned to train strikes. This is an interesting issue because both sides think it’s a winner for them. The moment Starmer raised the subject, the Tories all roared with delight and pointed at the Labour benches, who immediately pointed back. It was nice to see them all so happy. Starmer attacked Johnson for not having met the unions to stop the strikes, and Johnson taunted Starmer for having had 25 MPs on the picket lines on Tuesday, despite his best efforts, “backing the strikers, while we back the strivers”.

There you had it. Conservatives attacking Labour for meeting too many strikers, and Labour attacking the Tories for not meeting enough of them. Across the aisle, Priti Patel and Angela Rayner mouthed things at each other.

After a slightly wobbly start, Starmer had found his feet. Johnson, he noted, had on Monday evening “sold a meeting with himself for £120,000”. This is understating things. The auction prize at the Conservative dinner in question was for dinner with Johnson, Theresa May and David Cameron. We don’t know who the winner is, but it’s got to be someone who’s a fan of awkward silences. Profilers should look for a millionaire who finds Harold Pinter plays lacking in sufficient wordless loathing.

“Rather than blame everyone else,” the Labour leader asked of Johnson, “why does he not do his job, get round the table and get the trains running?”

The Prime Minister’s reply was that it was “up to the train companies” to negotiate. Moments earlier he’d been talking in detail about the government’s plans to reform the railways. The position seems to be that ministers are responsible for good things that happen on trains, but not bad things.

Starmer moved on. Why was the government telling public sector workers they needed to exercise pay restraint while examining the possibility of lifting caps on bankers’ bonuses, he asked. It wasn’t an entirely fair question — the bonus cap proposal only affects company directors — but it was notable that those around Johnson looked completely wrong-footed, shaking their heads in bafflement. Patel chewed her lip awkwardly. Dominic Raab looked nervous, though that might just be his resting expression. On the Labour frontbench, Jon Ashworth made scissoring gestures with his fingers.

“Pay rises for city bankers, pay cuts for district nurses,” said Starmer. “I didn’t see that on any leaflets in Wakefield.”

But now Johnson was off on one of his rambling replies. Trident! £1,200! National insurance! Nuclear reactors! Cheaper transport! Arthur Scargill! Jeremy Corbyn! Back to the 1970s! It was hard to tell what his point was, and hard to care. It was hot, and sensible people who could were working from their back gardens. We streamed out into the sunshine, to make the most of the lovely weather.

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