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Laugh to hide the tears

Rishi Sunak was desperate to appear on top form before the Liaison Committee


“Hahahahahaha!” Rishi Sunak was in front of the Liaison Committee, the oddly-named collection of senior MPs who, once a term, get to question the prime minister. He had apparently decided to play the role of a genial leader who is really just one of the gang. This involved quite a lot of laughing, though only really on his part, and most of it a touch forced.

Tuesday was the final day before the Easter recess. Parliament has been twiddling its thumbs for weeks, and the break will save MPs from the obligation to pretend they have things to do in Westminster. Some will use the time to campaign in their constituencies. Others, especially Conservatives, are updating their LinkedIn profiles and calling headhunters. If anyone wants to hire a former junior minister, it’s a buyer’s market.

Presumably his message on the Conservative MPs WhatsApp group was briefer: “Fly, you fools!”

Have the Tories given up? Schools minister Robert Halfon, who spent a decade trying to get elected in his Harlow constituency before finally winning it in 2010, announced on Tuesday afternoon that he was joining the ranks of MPs who are standing down. His departing tweet, apparently aimed at his constituents, featured a lengthy quote from Gandalf. Presumably his message on the Conservative MPs WhatsApp group was briefer: “Fly, you fools!”

Overnight the Conservatives had produced a weird black-and-white ad, in which an American actor announced that London is no longer home to “kings and queens” but instead to “squads of ULEZ enforcers, dressed in black, faces covered with masks” who had apparently forced people “underground”. Possibly this was a misreading of “onto the Underground”, a translation error as the script made its way across the Atlantic. The film certainly seemed to have been produced by people who had only dimly heard of Britain. Or perhaps it was intentional: a cry for help from a party that knows it has to be stopped. 

Harriet Baldwin, the Conservative who chairs the Treasury committee, had somehow made her way safely past the ULEZ enforcers and into Parliament. She asked the prime minister about advance newspaper reports of the contents of the Budget. “I deplore these leaks,” Sunak said, all sincerity. “I suffered from them myself.” One imagines that Treasury officials listening in avoided each other’s eyes at this point. 

This section of the hearing was the prime minister’s happy place. He barely bothered looking at his binder of facts, throwing out numbers left and right. Did a Labour MP have a statistic? Sunak had two in reply. He was Spreadsheet Rishi, Captain Details. He’d even put on his glasses: the nerd’s nerd. Only when it was suggested that more cash might be needed for public services did he become a touch spiky, perhaps four out of ten on the Snippometer. 

Bob Neill, another departing Tory — it might be easier just to list the ones who hope to still be here after the election — asked about court backlogs. The Snippometer twitched up a bit. The prime minister has been working very hard, and assured the ungrateful Neill that he was “absolutely committed” to solving this. 

Labour’s Diana Johnson knows exactly how to upset Sunak. Had he found a way to get illegal immigrants to Rwanda, she asked? How many did he hope to send? The Snippometer needle was wobbling between seven and eight as he talked over her, explaining grumpily that he had “a range of options”. By the time the SNP’s Joanna Cherry began asking about people fleeing the Taliban, we were getting close to nine. “Hahahahaha,” the prime minister said, sounding distinctly forced, before accusing her of asking “slightly bizarre” questions. 

But after an intervention from the chairman, Sir Bernard Jenkin, to stop Cherry from pushing so hard, Sunak calmed down a little. Rwanda was a safe country, he insisted. He had Paul Kagame’s word on the subject, he told us. It’s a good point: if you can’t trust Kagame, a man so popular that he won 98.8 per cent of the vote, who can you trust?

Finally, we got to William Wragg, a Tory who — can I just shock you? — is not running for re-election. He will be missed from parliament, not least by sketchwriters, who appreciate his dry wit and his willingness to turn his fire on his own side. On Tuesday his target was the last prime minister, Liz Truss. “She says she was undermined by the ‘deep state’,” Wragg told Sunak, deadpan. “Is there a deep state? Are you part of it? Am I?”

“Hahahaha!” the prime minister gave what sounded, for the first time, like a completely genuine laugh. “I probably wouldn’t tell you if I was,” he replied, the Snippometer needle now resting close to zero. He was in another happy place, talking about someone he views as so alien to him that he seems to have forgotten she was actually his party’s leader and prime minister 18 months ago. “Hahahaha!” 

Let’s hope the rest of the country sees the joke too.

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