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Carry On Tories

Rishi Sunak could not escape Matt Hancock’s steamy grasp

Matt Hancock had a great sense of urgency about him. He was perched on the edge of his seat in the House of Commons, wearing his lucky pink tie, trying to catch the Speaker’s eye. Prime Minister’s Questions was just kicking off, and he wasn’t on the list to ask one, but he clearly had a Great Matter to raise with Rishi Sunak.

What could it be, we wondered? Did he want to remind the prime minister that he was guilty only of following his heart? Perhaps he simply wanted to call for favourable tax treatment for divorced politicians trying to launch new careers in the media. 

We would have to wait. There was some urgent gesturing back and forth between him and Lindsay Hoyle. The Speaker consulted the list of names in front of him. Perhaps something could be done. Hancock tried, using facial expression alone, to convey the vital importance of his question. Maybe his book was a Kindle Deal of the Day.

On the frontbench, there was no sign of Grant Shapps, who had airbrushed himself out. Shapps is a great political combatant, because he has no shame and will say absolutely anything, but as the attempt to remove Boris Johnson from his history shows, he’s not a man to be stuck in a foxhole with. You’d wake to find him gone, and he’d pop up a couple of weeks later in a field hospital with a neat wound and a claim that he couldn’t remember the last month. 

This airbrushing of awkward moments from his past is likely to continue. In a few years time, there will be no evidence he was even a Conservative MP, and Wikipedia will show only that the constituency of Welwyn Hatfield disappeared from the map between 2005 and 2024.

The prime minister, meanwhile, was engaged in his own attempt to cover up some of the more embarrassing aspects of recent British political history. The state of the National Health Service dominated the session. First, we got the awkward question of Sunak’s own relationship with it.

“How long did the prime minister have to wait for his last NHS dentist appointment?” asked Labour’s Cat Smith.  

The prime minister can hardly say this, though

The answer to this is obvious: if you had hundreds of millions of pounds in the bank, how much of your life would you spend sitting on hold with toothache while someone looked to see if they had a space on their list? The prime minister can hardly say this, though, so he answered the question that’s been hanging in the air since he equivocated at the weekend. “I’m registered with an NHS GP,” he said. “I have used independent healthcare in the past.” The opposition benches went wild at this unsurprising admission. 

Keir Starmer had a single goal for the session, to pin the NHS crisis on the government. Sunak’s objective, meanwhile, was to find alibis. 

The result was unexciting. Starmer talked about waiting lists and blamed the Conservatives, Sunak talked about covid and blamed the unions. Starmer asked why so many people were waiting to see a cancer specialist. Sunak said it was because of lockdown. “By the way,” he added, “if we had listened to him, we would still be in lockdown!” It was a line that even Boris Johnson would have struggled to pull off in 2023, and mostly it served as a reminder that Sunak is no Johnson. 

Nor was the prime minister terribly well advised with his next line: “What is terrifying is that right now people do not know whether, when they call 999, they will get the treatment that they need.” Well, indeed. And if Sunak were a more regular user of public services, he’d know that this is a situation that isn’t limited to strike days.

Perhaps it was a day for points that hadn’t been thought through. Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s new Westminster leader, wanted to know what Sunak thought about Johnson earning a million pounds from four speeches. Quite possibly Sunak thinks it’s a bit sad to have to go to so much effort for a mere million, but he didn’t say so. Instead, the prime minister replied that they all had predecessors who had done embarrassing things. “If I am not mistaken, it was one of the honourable gentleman’s predecessors who worked for Russia Today.” Flynn looked furious about that. Alex Salmond is an unperson in the modern SNP, removed with an effectiveness that Grant Shapps would envy.

Behind the prime minister, Theresa May looked cheerful. Her own day rate is rather lower than Johnson’s, but thanks to a dogged work ethic her speech earnings are impressively high — especially impressive to those of us who’ve heard her speak. 

Through all this, Hancock had been bobbing up and down, signalling his desire to ask a question. Finally, just before the end, he was called. 

He wanted Sunak to condemn Andrew Bridgen, suspended from the Conservative whip an hour earlier for saying that the covid vaccination was “the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust”. 

Bridgen has been on a journey in recent months. He’s always been an oddball, but now he’s a complete nutter. 

You can offer a defence of this, of course. To paraphrase the late Labour MP Bill Stones, there’s plenty of nutters in the country, and they deserve some representation. Even Tory MPs though, may be looking at some of their colleagues and wondering if they’ve taken this principle too far.  

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