Edward Leigh: Fighter Ace

Never in the field of human endeavour has so much been blamed on so few

Portcullis Sketch

Enemy coast ahead! In the inky blackness, Wing Commander Edward Leigh could make out the faint outline of land between sea and sky. He kept one eye on the luminous dials in front of him. He was flying very low, hoping to avoid government radar and take ministers by surprise. Timing and precision would be everything.

His attack was still almost an hour away. First, the House of Commons had to get through Deputy PMQs. The party leaders were at the funeral of former Speaker Betty Boothroyd, so we were getting Dominic Raab instead. As he stood, alone, waiting to enter the chamber, he didn’t look very happy about it. He wiped the sweat from his upper lip. Best not to think about the casualty rate on a job like this.

Through all this, Leigh flew onwards, undetected

Raab is flying on borrowed time anyway. His constituency, the previously safe Tory seat of Esher and Walton, came within a whisker of falling at the last election. He’s under investigation for bullying civil servants. Any appearance at the despatch box could be his last.

Labour’s Angela Rayner made the most of his discomfort, opening with a question about antisocial behaviour. “The Deputy Prime Minister knows first-hand the misery caused by thugs and their intimidating behaviour,” she began. “Lurking with menace, exploding in fits of rage, creating a culture of fear.”

Raab has a special expression that he wears for moments like this, a wide, fixed grin. It’s probably intended to suggest that he’s very relaxed and in on the joke, but the actual effect is one of wide-eyed terror, like a Lancaster pilot caught in an enemy searchlight. He did, however, have a comeback. “I’ve never called anyone ‘scum’,” he said, which delighted his own side.

After that, things went downhill quite fast. Rayner pushed him on the appalling conviction rates for rape, and all he could offer was that things had recently got very slightly better.  Sitting on either side of him, Penny Mordaunt and Jeremy Hunt edged away. There was more incoming fire from the SNP’s Mhairi Black, who raised the latest cash-for-access scandal. “When he’s inevitably booted out of office, what will his going rate be?” she asked. Raab’s grin somehow became even less convincing.

It was an underarm ball, and he still fluffed it

By the time Labour’s Chris Bryant rose to ask him to pay tribute to recently departed national treasure Paul O’Grady, Raab was looking shell-shocked. His shoulders moved visibly as he breathed, and he listened to the question intently, waiting to see if it was going to end in a denunciation of something he’d done. Instead, it was an underarm ball, and he still fluffed it, offering praise instead to “Paul Grayson”, who apparently rejected “wokery”. At this point, an anti-aircraft shell would have been a mercy.

Through all this, Leigh flew onwards, undetected. Raab had fled the chamber, and been replaced by Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick, who had come to tell us about the government’s latest plan to stop people crossing the Channel by housing refugees in prison hulks. As the Liberal Democrat Alistair Carmichael put it, the government had decided “the answer to the problem of growing numbers of people in small boats was to take them all together and put them into one big boat.”

In the past, ministers have angrily rejected suggestions that their treatment of refugees is cruel. Jenrick was at least up front about it. “We must fundamentally alter our posture,” he said. From now on, asylum seekers would get “their essential living needs and nothing more”. Otherwise, he said, we would be a “magnet” for migrants. His goal is to make Britain a less attractive place to live than Syria or Afghanistan. Although this does explain a lot of things about the way the country has been run in recent years, it may still be a stretch.

Do we have the stomach for this? People smugglers, Jenrick explained, “are some of the most evil, most pernicious people in society. You have to match them.” Now, there probably are people in the Commons who would vote to drown migrant children in the Channel, but I doubt there’s a majority.

The statement got a mixed reaction even on the Tory benches. Richard Drax, hardly a softy, said using ships to house refugees was “out of the question”. Suddenly there was Leigh, zipping in just above the treeline, holding his nerve and bouncing his question towards the minister. The government plans to turn RAF Scampton, home of the Dam Busters and the Red Arrows, into a migrant camp. Leigh is having none of it. “This thoroughly bad decision,” he said, “is based not on good government, but the politics of trying to ‘do something’.”

He had the target in sight now. “Lincolnshire will fight,” he roared. “Lincolnshire will be proved right!” It was a hit! Labour MPs cheered, though this may have been ironic. Will it be enough? Will more strikes be required to bust the policy? What unfortunate codename has been selected to signal success? All these questions remain, but Wing Commander Leigh had turned for home, mission completed. He seems likely to be flying longer than Raab.

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