A sticky wicket

Rishi Sunak has trouble playing, and delivering, spin

“I’m opening the bowling,” Sir Bob Neill told Rishi Sunak at the start of a 90-minute session of Parliament’s Liaison Committee on Tuesday. Neill is not a dangerous bowler. The ball is neither fast nor spun. 

At the wicket, the prime minister was at his most relaxed, keen to hear Neill’s thoughts about funding the justice system. He was across the detail, recalling that in his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he’d put money in place to tackle exactly the problem Neill was raising. There were no bold strokes for the boundary, but no moments of danger either.

Only at the end of the over did we see a crack in the prime minister’s genial façade

Only at the end of the over did we see a crack in the prime minister’s genial façade, in response to a ball that came in perhaps a little bit faster and aimed straight for the wicket. Neill asked about the delays in the court system, with even straightforward cases taking up to two years. Sunak’s response to this was just a flash of annoyance. “We are focused very hard on reducing the court backlog,” he told Neill. 

The truth is that Sunak doesn’t enjoy being grilled. He’s skipping Prime Minister’s Questions for the next two weeks, and had explained that he had only limited time for the committee, because he had to get to a very important event afterwards: a tea party at a children’s hospital. As a result, Tuesday’s umpire, Sir Bernard Jenkin, was keen to move things along, cutting questioners off if they went past their allotted time or looked like they might be trying to catch the batsman stepping out of his crease. 

They still tried. Labour’s Dame Diana Johnson asked about the Rwanda policy, and Sunak’s progress towards stopping small boats crossing the Channel. These balls were rather faster, and the prime minister swatted at them irritably. When would he meet his target for reducing the backlog of cases? He waffled. “So you’ll deliver by December?” Dame Diana tried. “Your time’s up,” Jenkin told her testily. 

By the time Labour’s Catherine McKinnell was asking about the economy, Genial Rishi, the ideal son-in-law, had disappeared, and been replaced by Snippy Rishi, the teenager who’s tired of being reminded about the state of his bedroom. He was positively sarcastic, quoting an IMF press conference “which I’m sure the honourable lady was listening to since she’s quoting the figures.”

But the bowling was only just starting to get tricky. On from the Pavilion End came William Wragg, who delivers a slow, arching leg spin that is almost unplayable. “I hear worrying reports of a Blob wandering down Whitehall thwarting the ambitions of ministers,” he began, his tone dangerously friendly. The prime minister blocked. He had always been well-supported by his officials. So, Wragg went on, all this talk about the Blob “is really an excuse for weak ministers and perhaps unworkable policies?” Well, said Sunak, of course sometimes you find things are harder than you thought they would be. In that case, said Wragg, the Shane Warne of the committee, perhaps he should put his arm around these ministers and tell them to work a bit harder. Sunak looked like Mike Gatting trying to work out what the hell had just happened to his off stump. 

There was more to come from Wragg on honours, but at the other end Sir Chris Bryant was warming up. He didn’t bother with any of Wragg’s finesse, and just hurled the bouncers that went very fast directly at the prime minister’s head. Why hadn’t the Commons been told last week’s NHS plan first? Sunak gave a bored wave of his hand. “I always try to announce what I can to Parliament.” Why was the prime minister so reluctant to vote on Boris Johnson’s conduct? Had he voted on Owen Paterson’s? “I can’t recall,” snapped Sunak, hunkered down at the wicket. He’d been at a dinner on the evening of Johnson’s vote. It really is unfortunate, the way the prime minister’s diary prevents him from attending things he’s desperate to avoid. You could see Sunak thinking about the poor wee kiddies waiting to have tea with him. How much more of this would there be?

What, Bryant wanted to know, was his view of the MPs who had attacked the Privileges Committee? “I haven’t actually gone through the report yet.” Sunak thought he’d defended that one well, but Bryant was sure it was LBW. “You haven’t read the report?” he asked, incredulous. “It’s about three pages long!” This is a slight exaggeration, but Bryant was prioritising speed over accuracy. “I’ve read the findings of the report,” the prime minister conceded.

“Last question,” barked Jenkin, and Sunak knew he’d made it through safe, if not quite unscathed. And now a blessed fortnight free from having to face any damned impertinent bowling at all. 

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