The magician’s dismay

The showman spotted the rabbit hopping about backstage, but was forced to carry on with his trick

PMQs began this week with a trap. Seemingly embracing the Prime Minister in a spirit of bi-partisanship, the leader of the opposition said he supported the snail-paced unlocking of the country, but was concerned about some pesky peddlers of disinformation who said the Covid statistics look like they’ve been “manipulated” and that the roadmap was based on “dodgy assumptions” and “false modelling”. Could the Prime Minister please just agree that these sort of critics should be locked up in the Tower of London or simply interred on the Isle of Man, should the latter, with its open bars, agree to take them?

Boris Johnson clearly identified the quoted comments as the stinging attack of his friends in the CRG and stopped short of agreeing to court-marshal half of his parliamentary party, denying Sir Keir the satisfaction of embarrassing him in front of a few masked MPs and a smattering of watchers online. But, like a magician who must still perform the trick even though he’s spotted the rabbit hopping around backstage, the Labour leader was forced to reveal that the people the Prime Minister had not been rude to were, in fact, his own Tory backbenchers! How silly of him! Sir Keir suggested he should “have a word with them”, which as spur of the moment payoffs go, was little better than something Jeremy Corbyn might have come up with a few minutes after PMQs muttering to Seumas after he slouched out of the chamber.

The main topic of the sparring match was public spending. The Labour leader’s best line was: “if you need £500 to self-isolate you’re out of luck, if you’ve got the Health Secretary’s WhatsApp you get a million pound contract” which was a good try but probably comes as news to all the political journalists who can see Matt Hancock’s thousand-mile stare in their WhatsApp contacts but are still waiting for their million quid. Or perhaps that’s just me? One day my blue ticks will come in and I can escape all this, I’ll never need to write another thing about NHS sensitivity guidance leaflets ever again. Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, watching things happen online between listless, disengaged people.

Sir Keir – he was the one with the neater hair, I noticed that – was keen to talk about the upcoming budget. But before I go on it’s important to stress that the Prime Minister cannot discuss tax sensitive matters with anyone except for the Chancellor and a group of select journalists at The Times and the Telegraph. We have an unwritten constitution in this country, doncha know, and for as long as journalists don’t improve themselves by escaping up and out of journalism and into more honest toil like politics, those are the boys who get to write about budgets before budgets. The opposition leader tried out a version of this gag but he butchered it so badly it would ruin the sketch to reproduce his attempt. The Prime Minister replied that the Budget was happening next week and that the date wasn’t being concealed from the Rt. Hon. Gentleman. This was probably the low-point of the whole exchange, a bit like when you accidentally tune into a Radio 4 comedy and you only realise someone made a joke because someone in the studio audience gives a sympathetic guffaw. Only, now there’s no studio audience.

The Labour leader outlined his own plan for what he wanted from Rishi Sunak which consisted mainly of soundbites, and who wouldn’t envy Rishi’s? But presumptuously the ex-DPP was actually proposing to offer the chancellor – a man who’d worked his way out of Winchester and Oxford with nothing but a dream – some of his own zingers. The government needed to “protect families”, to “build a better path”, to “give key workers the pay rise they deserve” and the oddly specific: “back British businesses by supporting 100,000 new startups”. But rattling off cheque-free cliches doesn’t always work in a pandemic. The Labour leader scoffed that instead of wanting to do all this, all the PM was offering was “a return to business as usual” . In the midst of year-long pandemic-fuelled restrictions, that sounded like an attractive option, and rather more so than the one the PM was offering. But of course the PM might not mean what he says, while poor old Keir of course will. Clever buggers these Tories, you’ve got to watch them.

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