Cavalier with the facts

PMQs pitches a Cavalier prime minister against his Roundhead opponent. But Boris risks a lot as “the Rupert of debate”

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Prime Minister’s Questions distils into a single gladiatorial contest what thousands of enthusiasts in a charitable organisation called the Sealed Knot perform across the country most summers – namely the re-enactment of battles of the English Civil War.

Unsmiling, relentless, serious to the point of bringing despair to his foot-soldiers as much as his opponents, Sir Keir Starmer is a Roundhead general for our times. Nobody believes better than he that virtue and providence are his shield. This faith sustains him whilst the fickle and ungodly court of popular opinion fails to rally to his command. He believes that holding firm, doggedly probing the enemy with the long pike and short-sword will eventually prevail, no matter how long the march to victory may prove.

Facing him, the generous girth of the nation’s leading Cavalier occupies his command-post. His long, uncut hair resembling a thatch on a half-timbered cottage, Boris Johnson lands at the despatch box as if he has just fallen from his place of concealment in an oak tree, bleary and under-prepared, but confident in assertion. It might be said of him, as Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton once said of the parliamentary style of a previous Tory prime minister, Lord Derby, that Johnson is “irregularly great, frank, haughty, bold – the Rupert of debate.”

Today was one of those occasions when the prime minister did indeed resemble the dashing Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Unfortunately, it was the moment during the decisive civil war battle of Naseby when the great Cavalier commander charged his horsemen through the parliamentary lines with such momentum that they kept going and ended up spending the rest of the day plundering a distant baggage train rather than returning to determine the result of the battle.

Nothing was more inevitable than that the leader of the Opposition would attack the government on its nurses pay offer. Starmer duly began his advance: taking too literally the dictum that “charity begins at home” the prime minister could spend £200,000 on wallpaper for his flat whilst offering nurses, including those who had saved his life, a 1 percent rise at a time when inflation was 1.7 percent. “When I clapped for carers I meant it,” Starmer jabbed, “he clapped for carers and shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.”

Prince Boris turned his horse towards the rustle from the bushes and raised his sabre. “Exceptionally,” he had asked the public sector pay review body to look at nurses pay. Their starting salaries had gone up by 12.8 percent in the last three years alone. A package of support including bursaries, help with the cost of training and childcare meant there were 10,600 more nurses in the NHS than a year ago. “This government, this party of the NHS, is on target to deliver 50,000 more nurses in our NHS” he countered, before proceeding to recite the staggeringly large sums of additional funding the NHS had received over the last year: “It is because of this government that in one year alone there are another 49,000 people working in our NHS which is of massive benefit not just to patients but to hard-pressed nurses as well.”

Starmer steered the clash of arms back to the nurses’ real terms pay cut. Two years ago, he reminded the House, the government had committed to a nurses’ pay rise of 2.1 percent, “his MPs voted for it” said Starmer of Johnson.

Boris Johnson lands at the despatch box as if he has just fallen from his place of concealment in an oak tree

This was the point when, heady with the success of reequipping his Tory army into “this party of the NHS,” Johnson launched the charge too far. Starmer, he triumphantly alleged, had voted against that 2.1 percent pay rise. Starmer did not yield, demanding that Johnson put the 1 percent nurses deal to a vote in parliament. To this Johnson repeated the charge that, “the last time we put it to a vote, he voted against it!”

Considering himself the easy victor, the prime minister departed the chamber at the end of PMQs without choosing to notice the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, advancing steadily and protesting a point of order. It was, said Ashworth, “not the case” that Labour had voted against the 2.1 percent pay deal. Hansard would show that “I was explicit that we would not be dividing the House.” Johnson should return to the Commons to correct the record accordingly. The Speaker, however, brought the skirmish to a close, “that is not a point of order but it is a point of clarification, that part has been achieved.”

Thus ended the battle, but not the reprisals. Repelling persistent enquires, the Downing Street press secretary, Allegra Stratton, felt that the Speaker’s acceptance that the record had been duly clarified by Ashworth was sufficient. This did not satisfy lobby journalists who wanted to know whether it was really the Speaker’s job to correct the prime minister’s inaccuracies and – given that this was not his first offence – whether her boss had a “problem with getting the facts right?”

The ministerial code states “it is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.” There is no suggestion that parliament was knowingly misled in this instance.  This is what distinguishes it from the far more serious allegation that Nicola Sturgeon has breached the ministerial code with her supposed evasiveness and inaccurate recollection of when she heard what about Alex Salmond.

But it is a comparison that Scottish nationalists and Roundheads everywhere will seek to make. Rather than charging off into the sunset in search of war booty, it might suit a more strategic battle plan for Prince Boris to execute the smallest of tactical retreats and, with whatever pretence of humility, put the record straight.

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