Hero of the hour

Giles Watling asked the question that was on nobody’s lips, as he rushed to the Prime Minister’s rescue


The tone for Prime Minister’s Questions was set in the opening moments, when Giles Watling, the Tory MP for Clacton, asked Rishi Sunak if he agreed that the best way to help people with the cost of living crisis was to bring down inflation.

A knighthood is surely too paltry a reward for the man who persuaded Rishi Sunak to tell us what he thinks about inflation

Up in the press gallery, we held our breath. How would the prime minister play this googly of a question? What DID he think about the importance of reducing inflation, something he has mentioned in every public appearance for 18 months? When the chips are down, is he for it or against it? Finally we were going to find out.

Sunak rose. Every muscle in our watching bodies was tense. Was this going to be the moment that, under intense questioning from the member for Clacton, the prime minister disowned his entire economic policy?

It was not. It turns out that he continues to think the thing that appears on the bottom of every email from his office. Inflation, he believes, is bad! It’s good that it’s coming down! Take that, inflation-lovers!

Truly, the people of Clacton, nay the nation entire, owes Watling a debt for nailing this down. A knighthood is surely too paltry a reward for the man who persuaded Rishi Sunak to tell us what he thinks about inflation. A peerage is the very least he should get. Frankly, I’d support giving him a princess’s hand in marriage, if we have one available.

It was always going to be downhill after that. Keir Starmer stood and thanked the departing Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford. Well, sort of. “I pay tribute to his long and steady service,” he said, which was hardly what you’d call an enthusiastic review. It was the kind of message you get on your leaving card from a party leader who has listened to one too many Conservative taunts about “Labour-run Wales”.

Why, Starmer asked rhetorically, was the prime minister so scared to call an election?  Sunak had a reply prepared: “I thought that out of everybody he’d actually be the most grateful, because he’s now actually got time to come up with a plan.”

“Oh, we’re ready,” snapped back the Labour leader. As witty exchanges go, it wasn’t exactly Tracy and Hepburn. The mind drifted away, and so did the eyes, a little down the frontbench to where James Cleverly sat.

We will have to behave ourselves. We certainly don’t have a plan

The Home Secretary is one of Parliament’s great hecklers. It would be generous to call him a wit, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up with doggedness. As Starmer stood asking his questions about the definitely-bound-to-work-and-not-really-that-expensive Rwanda scheme, Cleverly had one message, and he repeated it over and over again: “What is your plan?”

“What is your plan?” he asked, as if it were a polite inquiry, his left hand flicking outwards, palm up, again and again as though he were a Vegas blackjack dealer, sending card after card skimming across the table.

“What is your plan?” he asked, pointing his right hand at the Labour leader, first with just one finger out and then all of them. When the prime minister told the chamber that the opposition did not in fact have a plan, Cleverly gave a huge nod, with the satisfied air of a man who has just heard someone make what he thinks is the key point.

What is your plan?” he asked, brows furrowed, head shaking in disappointment.

By now Sunak had got onto the question of Starmer’s past work for Hizb ut-Tahrir. Far, far down the bench the Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, who is supposed to be the person in government pointing out that the legal system requires lawyers to act for unpleasant people, sat utterly motionless. He seemed to be in a meditative state, eyes unfocused, mind possibly on a happy release only months away.

Cleverly meanwhile had briefly stalled, perhaps stuck in a loop. But as Starmer asked about overcrowded prisons, he rebooted, and began pointing again. “What is your plan?”

The Home Secretary is such a busy man that he wears a watch on each wrist, to save microseconds when he wants to check the time. He began pointing along the whole of the opposition frontbench, full of people none of whom had a plan. His face was full of pained bafflement and anger that anyone would come to parliament without one.

Fortunately, at that very moment, Sunak was explaining that he did have a plan, and what was more, it was working. What with that and the information about his views on inflation, it was turning into a news-packed session.

Cleverly looked up at the press gallery, directly at the sketchwriters, and winked. We will have to behave ourselves. We certainly don’t have a plan.

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