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I, Sunak

An uninspired outing on all sides

I’m not saying Prime Minister’s Questions has become a little dull, but towards the end of Wednesday’s session, I’m sure I saw Sir Desmond Swayne reading a magazine. Not even reading, really, more flicking through, like a man in a dentist’s waiting room wondering whether to take a Cosmo quiz from 1998 on “How To Tell If Your Man Is Satisfied”. 

It’s not that Rishi Sunak is especially bad, or that Keir Starmer is especially good. Their contests seem to be mainly score-draws, with enough moments that both sides can feel content, and making little difference to anything. The problem is that Sunak can’t afford to make little difference to anything. He has stopped the Tory plane from plunging towards the ground and it is now flying straight and level, it’s true, but it’s also heading directly towards the side of an electoral mountain.

Things aren’t about to get better, either. The temperature in Westminster had dropped overnight, giving us the first really bitterly cold day of the winter. Gas bills will have been ticking up across the country. Every time you looked at the TV, someone else was going on strike. There are shortages of medicine. Anyone with a stockpile of Shakespeare quotes about grumpy seasons should get ready to deploy them.

Sunak walked into the House of Commons to a warm cheer from the Conservative benches, and then an ironic — and much funnier — one from Labour. Suella Braverman gave him a reassuring pat on the arm. Don’t let those rude children get to you, Rish, they’re just jealous of your extremely thin ties.

His exchange with Starmer was unenlightening, apparently scripted by that AI chatbot which can turn out bland, almost plausible sentences in any style you name. Write me a question about housebuilding in the style of Keir Starmer! Give me an answer saying that Labour’s ideas are terrible, and also that they’re the same as yours, in the style of Rishi Sunak! One of them is a flip-flopper! The other one is a wobbly blancmange! It doesn’t matter much which is which. 

Starmer moved to punch the bruise that is Baroness Mone’s Pandemic Millions. Sunak replied that he was as shocked as anyone to find out where all those cheques he’d signed had gone, and anyway, he went on, in a non-sequitur so immense that we wondered if the chatbot had rebooted halfway through the answer, why wasn’t Labour attacking the train strikes?

Behind Sunak, as Starmer asked about the Mone money, sat Matt Hancock, the Samuel Pepys of our age. He too looked appalled by everything that had happened, and amazed that Labour would have the temerity to ask about it. Or perhaps it was something else that had upset him. An hour later, he announced his intention to quit Parliament in order to take his important message about something or other to a wider audience. 

Although Hancock portrayed this as a personal choice — a prat leaving a sinking ship, if you will — we quickly learned that his local Conservative association had already decided he wasn’t going to be their candidate at the next election, so it was more a case of jumping after he’d been pushed. 

Before 2010, when Hancock was an ambitious aide to shadow chancellor George Osborne, he was known around Parliament for introducing himself with the words: “I hate it when people compare me to Ed Balls.” This was really not a comparison that anyone else was making, or certainly not in a flattering way, but it captured the way that his self-image was utterly unburdened by reality. Hancock is now following his hero out of Parliament with the goal of Making It On Television, although the Celebrity Jungle isn’t quite Strictly. Where Balls gets to host Good Morning Britain, Hancock may struggle to get a slot on GB News. 

They can’t even be bothered to stay for all of PMQs

It’s not just that Tory MPs are planning to leave Parliament. They can’t even be bothered to stay for all of PMQs. The session doesn’t last much more than half an hour these days, but before the end the government benches were visibly emptying, like a football stadium when disappointed fans slide out to beat the rush at the final whistle. 

The session was notable in one way. Sunak’s political rise involved two key endorsements, of Brexit in 2016 and of Boris Johnson in 2019. On Wednesday, he distanced himself from both. Quoting some Johnson statistics on housebuilding — and a truly smart computer would know to stay a long way away from Johnson stats — he referred to the man he once championed as “the former Conservative Mayor”. And asked what the government’s greatest achievement had been since 2019, he said it was its handling of the pandemic. That’s probably what the focus groups say, too, but it was an interesting straw in the wind. They flee from Brexit who sometimes rows did seek. 

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