The farce awakens

Not long ago, in a parliament far, far away


Boris Johnson was pink with sunburn. It was probably Labour’s fault. Over the course of the afternoon, the prime minister would blame the opposition for rail strikes and people smuggling, so it would hardly be out of character to complain that Keir Starmer has repeatedly failed to say what factor suncream should be deployed by fair-skinned men visiting the seaside.

Opposite him, the Labour leader was doing his best to look interesting. There have been suggestions in recent days that members of the Shadow Cabinet find him boring, despite his lively vegetarianism, his fascinating Gold Duke of Edinburgh award and his support for the famously fun-to-watch Arsenal. But the Labour leader was going to show us that, far from being dull, he was in fact exciting.

“Britain is set for lower growth than every major economy except Russia,” he told Johnson. “Why?”

The Conservative benches immediately mocked him, shrieking “Why? Why?” at each other. It was going to be one of those sessions. The prime minister replied, essentially, that Britain’s relative poor performance was a reflection of his government’s success.

This was, I can reveal, the seventh time that Kenobi has been mentioned in parliament

Anyway, he wanted to know, what was Starmer going to do about “Labour’s rail strikes”? When Tories say they don’t have anyone else like Johnson, this is what they mean. It takes a special kind of shamelessness to blame the people you comprehensively beat for the country’s problems. “He’s in government!” Starmer protested, pointing at Johnson. Tory MPs immediately began copying him, wiggling their fingers around in the air and chuntering noisily. Starmer ploughed on. “I do not want the strikes to go ahead, but he does. He wants the country to grind to a halt so that he can feed off the division.” This is the Machiavellian take on Johnson, that he’s a genius puppet master wreaking havoc across the country in order to keep putting Labour in difficult positions. An alternative view is that he’s useless.

But Starmer, determined to show he was not boring, had more to offer us. He had a reference to contemporary culture. The prime minister, he said, “thinks he can perform Jedi mind tricks on the country: ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’; ‘No rules were broken’, ‘The economy is booming’. The problem is, the Force just isn’t with him any more.” This was, on the whole, not a terrible joke, if a little laboured. Pleased with how it had gone down, he carried on. “He thinks he is Obi-Wan Kenobi; the truth is, he is Jabba the Hutt.”

This was, I can reveal, the seventh time that Kenobi has been mentioned in parliament over the decades, and a debut appearance for Hutt. Starmer didn’t specify in precisely which way the prime minister resembles the slug-like crime lord of Tatooine. Perhaps it’s that he’s surrounded by weak-minded fools. Perhaps he thinks he has a princess chained up in the Cabinet Room. Or maybe he was just saying he’s fat.

Johnson said Labour wanted to raise taxes. Labour MPs pointed at him and jeered. Starmer made a joke about Love Island, which he clearly didn’t understand. In the chamber, it was now so noisy it was impossible to hear either man. Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, threatened to eject Tories, but he does that every week, and they’ve got his number now.

And then, amazingly, Starmer managed to shut the Conservative benches up. He began reading out the quotes they had given about the prime minister. “Dragging everyone down”; “Authority is destroyed”; “Can’t win back trust”. He invited them to own up that they’d said them. They stayed very still. He went on. “My personal favourite is this. It is a document circulated by his backbenchers, in which they call him the ‘Conservative Corbyn’. I don’t think that was intended as a compliment.”

Next to Starmer, Rachel Reeves looked like she found that one funnier than Angela Rayner. Johnson made a face of mock outrage. As he would point out, the Labour leader was the one who campaigned to make Jeremy Corbyn prime minister.

Starmer should have finished there. Indeed, he should have started there a week ago. Instead he went on for another minute, with even Hoyle complaining he was taking too long. Part of the trick of being interesting is knowing when to stop.

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