Dominic Raab was wearing a thin grey tie and a slightly forced smile. It was his first House of Commons appearance since his demotion from Foreign Secretary. He was there in his consolation role, as Deputy Prime Minister, to stand in while Boris Johnson enjoyed the autumn sunshine in Washington.
Facing him was Angela Rayner, herself the victim of a misfired demotion. Her smile, though, was a little more convincing, as she launched herself into the bloodsport that is reading back to government ministers things they’ve written in the past.
Their exchanges were largely formulaic, with Raab ignoring the bits of questions he didn’t like and Rayner pushing him on the impact that Universal Credit cuts will have on poorer families. But Rayner had the better of it. “Lots of words for ‘I don’t know’,” she remarked after one of his answers.
Her focus turned, inevitably, to Raab’s now-notorious holiday on Crete, surely the most disastrous trip there since Theseus sparked his father’s suicide by returning from the island with black sails.
“A worker on the minimum wage would need to work an extra 50 days to pay for a single night at his favourite resort,” Rayner told the chamber. This is probably an exaggeration, but Raab’s aides are unlikely to start ringing round to explain that the Deputy Prime Minister’s hotel actually only cost £1,000 a night.
“If we’d listened to the Labour Party,” Raab said, “we wouldn’t have opened up, we wouldn’t be bouncing back.”
Rayner went in for the kill. “Families across the country are worried about heating their homes, while the Deputy Prime Minister is complaining about having to share his 115-room taxpayer-funded mansion with the Foreign Secretary,” she said.
Raab, though, had spotted a mistake, and thrust back. “She should check her facts,” he said. The mansion in question “is funded by a charity — not a penny of taxpayers’ money!” Next to him, Rishi Sunak laughed, and Raab looked pleased with himself.
Raab’s holiday on Crete — the most disastrous trip there since Theseus sparked his father’s suicide by returning from the island with black sails
As it turns out, this is also not quite right: Chevening, the mansion in question, is funded by a trust that was set up under a law which states the place can only be used by the Prime Minister, a Cabinet minister or a lineal descendant of George VI. Perhaps Raab was thinking of the charity that Johnson spent much of 2020 trying to set up in order to pay for his wallpaper. This was, sadly, blocked by civil servants before the Prime Minister had a chance to get a JustGiving page set up.
In any case, as the saying goes, if you’re explaining the Chevening Estate Act 1959 (as amended 1987), you’re losing, especially if the discussion of the seventeenth century Kent country house that you stay in on the weekends is taking place in the context of welfare cuts that your government is pushing through.
Across the Atlantic, the Prime Minister was explaining to the cameras his government’s somewhat reduced ambitions on trade deals. Having been pretty much rebuffed the previous evening by Joe Biden on the big US trade deal that he’s spent much of the last five years promising us, Johnson instead hailed “solid incremental steps”, which sound like the sort of thing Theresa May might have promised.
“The Biden administration is not doing free trade deals around the world right now,” the Prime Minister explained. It’s not us, it’s them. They’re not looking at cutting tariffs with anyone at the moment. And in any case, we’re looking at joining a free trade bloc with Mexico, but you wouldn’t know it, because it goes to a different World Trade Organisation. In Canada.
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