Sinking giggling into the sea

The Conservatives were very amused with Rishi Sunak’s latest joke, even if no one else was

There are moments when the world turns on a phrase: I have a dream; Blood, sweat and tears; Delenda est Cathargo. There are words that will echo through eternity: Nothing to fear but fear itself; We happy few; In the beginning. To these lists, we must now, with reverence and awe, add another moment of oratory so powerful that those of us who heard it will be forever changed, unable to return to our previous lives. 

We had arrived for Prime Minister’s Questions with low expectations, little thinking we were about to witness history. The chamber was full, and both sides were perky. Things opened quietly enough. Selaine Saxby, a Conservative, asked Rishi Sunak for his views of the wickedness of the Liberal Democrat-run North Devon Council, which has failed to reopen Barnstaple Bus Station. The prime minister’s view, it turned out, was that “the Liberal Democrats should just get on and do it”. 

So far, so not very Shakespearian. Up in the press gallery, we doodled in the margins of our notebooks. The prime minister had arrived to thin smiles from his own side. Two weeks back in constituencies didn’t seem to have warmed his MPs to him. Little could they have guessed what they were about to behold.

Keir Starmer was speaking. He had got hold of a copy of Liz Truss’s new book, he said, “a rare unsigned copy”. The book is genuinely selling well. Amazon has run out of copies, possibly because Labour is sending one to every voter. 

“It is quite the read,” Starmer went on. “She claims that the Tory party’s disastrous kamikaze Budget, which triggered chaos for millions, was, in her words, ‘the happiest moment’ of her premiership. Has the prime minister met anyone with a mortgage who agrees?”

It was a straightforward, fairly obvious question. How could we have known that it would set up the greatest put-down since Cicero confronted Verres or Taylor Swift wrote a lyric about Calvin Harris? 

Sunak rose to reply. His life had been building to this moment. The decades of careful study of political intrigue and rhetorical technique. The late nights poring over the diaries of long-dead prime ministers. The hours spent honing timing and delivery. And it came to this. 

“All I would say is,” he said, “he ought to spend a bit less time reading that book, and a bit more time reading the deputy leader’s tax advice!”

We know that this was the greatest piece of wit since Charles Dickens posted The Pickwick Papers off to his publishers from the way the Conservative benches erupted. They yelled like they’d just seen Geoff Hurst belt a fourth goal into the back of the West German net, or Ben Stokes hit an accidental boundary against New Zealand. 

They shouted like they’d just heard the news from Agincourt or El Alamein. They roared with laughter like they’d watched Del Boy fall through a bar or Captain Mainwairing instructed Pike to keep his mouth shut. It was an animal noise of approval, of triumph at the sheer brilliance of the prime minister’s perfectly constructed comeback. 

The sound was so loud it must have made people pause as far away as Trafalgar Square. Did buses and taxis pause on Westminster Bridge? Did Tube drivers read out the line to their passengers? Let’s say they did.

Up in the gallery, the breath was knocked out of our lungs. It was as though George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde had spent a year together workshopping the savagest burn imaginable. “A bit more time reading the deputy leader’s tax advice.” One of the Hansard stenographers was openly weeping at the brilliance of the riposte. Schoolchildren a century from now will yell it at their enemies in the playground. 

On and on the cheering went. Conservative MPs looked ready to carry Sunak from the room on their shoulders, to march over the road into Westminster Abbey and demand he be crowned king. “More!” they shouted, ignoring the Speaker’s attempt to silence them. “More!” But how could they have hoped anyone, even their amazing leader, would be able to match such an inspired line? “A bit more time reading the deputy leader’s tax advice.” Bliss it was that lunchtime to be alive.

Finally, exhausted, sated, the Conservative benches calmed down. They were satisfied. They had heard words they will never forget. All that was left was for Nigel Mills to ask the prime minister if he agreed that solar farms in the Amber Valley were a bad idea. And you know what? He did. 

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