Boris-go! Boris-go! Boris-go!

Se vuol ballare, signor contino, il chitarrino le suonerò


“Champagne socialism is back in the Labour party!” Dominic Raab declared, very pleased with himself. It had been a particularly silly session of deputy prime minister’s questions, but that’s built into it. Nothing much that Raab says at these events matters. He’s not going to promise you a new hospital, and if he did, it wouldn’t mean you’d get one. He could perhaps resign, but we’ve all heard him sweat his way through enough morning broadcast rounds by now to know that he’s not about to do anything that interesting.

His comment came during a reply to Labour’s Angela Rayner. “She talks about working people,” he said, “but where was she when comrades were on the picket line last Thursday? She was at the Glyndebourne music festival, sipping champagne and listening to opera.”

This was greeted with a great “Ah!” from the Conservative benches. Next to Raab, Rishi Sunak laughed his head off, presumably at the idea that anyone would leave their house to see live opera, rather than simply helicoptering the cast, crew and orchestra to their back garden.

As the government’s main attack line against Labour is that they’re a bunch of hardline Corbynistas who are personally responsible for the rail strikes, it was a bit confusing to hear Raab denouncing Rayner for not joining a picket line. But it was hard to get away from the idea that Raab’s main joke was simply that Rayner, a woman who is Not Posh, had Done A Posh Thing.

If he had meant any of it, it would have been pretty unpleasant. “Know your place” is never a good line from a Conservative minister. But he didn’t, of course, as he telegraphed by winking cheerfully to Rayner as he began the point. The Wink was, in itself, incredibly creepy, but the message was “I’m just doing this for the cameras — see you in the tea room later.”

It was all very pantomime, and the audience treated it as such

The opera in question was The Marriage of Figaro, which has the kind of bedroom-hopping plot that looks convoluted until you’ve spent a couple of years covering the prime minister. A scene where a page boy walks in on a press officer pleasuring the Count wouldn’t look out of place. The second act features the Count wandering around his mansion while failing to notice that there’s a party happening in every room, and in the third he’s forced to marry the press officer and build her an enormous tree-house. The Count then sings an aria about how hard his life is, while texting the Duke of Brownlow to ask if he has any spare cash.

Raab is a pretty minor character in all this, perhaps a lawyer who comically misunderstands the Count’s request for a gagging order. At the start of the session, he looked nervous. He always looks nervous. What is the terrible secret that he fears will one day come out? It can’t be as bad as the sort of thing that Johnson does on a weekly basis. But Raab knows that you need a certain amount of chutzpah to pull off Boris, and he knows that he doesn’t have it what it takes. Sunak gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

Rayner at least gets to enjoy herself at these encounters. She’s good at them, and there are very few risks. She opened with a gag about Johnson having “fled the country” and then asked Raab if he supported Johnson’s plan to govern into the 2030s.

It was also an odd way to go, because it implied that the Conservatives will win a couple more elections. This isn’t Labour’s goal, however much it sometimes seems like it might be. “Let us imagine that the prime minister is still clinging on into the 2030s,” she said. “At this rate by 2030 the British public will have endured 55 tax rises.” Although they would also have voted in two more Conservative governments, so many of the interesting questions are about the state of the Labour Party in this hypothetical scenario. They have now endured six general election defeats. How have they done so badly? Did Barry Gardiner finally launch that coup against the leadership? Are they still blaming Tony Blair? Perhaps they’ve simply underestimated how much of Johnson people are willing to swallow?

“How many more tax rises will this government inflict on working families before the Deputy Prime Minister says enough is enough?” Rayner asked, but that’s really nowhere near the top of my list of questions for the time traveller from the future where Johnson is still prime minister in a decade. Has he finished his Shakespeare book, and who does it say won the Battle of Agincourt? Who is he married to now, and what jobs has he got for her? What home improvement is he now raising fund for — a solid gold toilet? How many sets of advisers has he got through — has he started again with Dom Cummings? And how many Tory MPs are currently insisting that they’re just one more fraud conviction away from demanding that the prime minister seriously consider his position?

It was all very pantomime, and the audience treated it as such. At times it was impossible to hear what either Raab or Rayner were saying. He accused her of changing her mind about train strikes. She accused him of trying to manage the Afghan crisis from a sun lounger. That makes it sound quite vicious, but as the wink revealed, it was actually all terribly jolly, like fake wrestling, or Mozart operas. At the end, the cast all realise their various mistaken identities, and sing about the joys of love.

Next week, the Count returns. At least, I think that’s what the Number 10 press office said.

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