Man Reading a Long Speech off a Scroll

The never-ending question

Jonathan Gullis may still be in the middle of his parliamentary question

Artillery Row

Oliver Dowden and Angela Rayner stood on either side of the speaker’s chair, like prize fighters waiting to go into the ring. Prize somethings, anyway. Each seemed to be waiting for the other to stake a seat first. They stayed there well beyond the point where a frontbencher would usually have taken a seat, past the time that their session was due to begin. Was this some cunning effort to gain psychological advantage? It would be no surprise to learn that Dowden’s shelf was crammed with books called things like “Forty-Seven Habits Of Faintly Effective People”. 

Finally, they strode in at the same moment. Rishi Sunak was off on a European tour which had been arranged in such a way that he was missing PMQs. Perhaps someone in the brains trust that is running the Conservative election campaign had decided that this would give them the chance to pummel Rayner about whatever it is she is supposed to have maybe done that might mean she underpaid tax on a house sale by 50p. 

Unfortunately, the government is now staffed by the only people left not to have resigned, which meant that any punishment beatings would have to be delivered by Dowden, a man with the suppressed menace of a dishcloth. Future historians will struggle to believe the low quality of Sunak’s Cabinet. Later in the day Grant Shapps, who is, incredibly, the Defence Secretary, would give a statement on what is supposed to be a generational increase in military spending. It was so lacking in substance, so unpersuasive, that the days of Gavin Williamson telling Vladimir Putin to “go away” seemed Churchillian by comparison. 

Back at Deputy PMQs, the opening question came from Jonathan Gullis, a Tory MP from Stoke-on-Trent who is as furious as Dowden is limp. Gullis is one of those people who has the air of suspecting that people burst into laughter the moment he has left the room. Though if he does think that, it would be uncharacteristically perceptive of him. 

The ideal parliamentary question is brief and makes a clear point. Gullis, it rapidly became clear, was not aiming for this. “Since being elected in 2019, I have…” he began, and already the chamber had some sense of what was coming. He was going to read his entire election leaflet into the record.  We got it all, from Tunstall Hall’s new library to better alley gates and extra CCTV. Labour MPs groaned and Tories giggled. On and on he went, moving to the wickedness of Labour-led Stoke-on-Trent council, as opposition MPs theatrically yawned and looked at their watches and even the Parliamentary attendants chortled. 

Was there a question in there? We never found out. Speaker Lindasy Hoyle eventually cut Gullis off, suggesting he try for an adjournment debate. “I’m not sure there is much that I can add to that,” Dowden said, and even Rayner laughed. 

It was her turn next. “I know that the Conservative party is desperate to talk about my living arrangements,” she began, “but the public wants to know what this government will do about theirs.” 

As she went on, raising the question of landlords’ ability to evict tenants for no reason, Dowden flicked to the back of his big red folder. Sellotaped to the inside cover were several slips of paper, each with a few typed lines. He rose to reply: “It is a pleasure to have another exchange with the Right Honourable Lady in this house,” he read out, “our fifth in 12 months. Any more of these and she will be claiming it as her principal residence!”

Tories duly fell about at this joke, which though aimed at Rayner was also a reminder of quite how often Sunak finds excuses to be elsewhere on a Wednesday. I was more interested in the folder. It’s normal for ministers to have notes with them, but I’ve never seen one quite so transparently read out their zingers. 

Each time Rayner asked a question, Dowden would read out one of the lines his team had lovingly written for him. At one point he ticked off the ones he’d already used. 

When the subject turned to the West Midlands, Dowden flicked to the front of his folder, where a big piece of paper had been stuck into the other cover: “If you want more bin collections, more potholes filled, lower debt and lower council tax” – here he looked down at his notes to check what came next, before reading it out, with evident care – “vote Conservative!”

Of course we all know this stuff is scripted, but you’re supposed to pretend it’s not. You don’t see Sir Ian McKellen looking intently at a piece of paper on the back of his staff before announcing: “YOU SHALL NOT… hang on, I’ve got it here… PASS!”

Rayner, to be fair, had been doing little better at reading her own questions, which contained several convoluted references to this week’s Conservative scandals. But a Dowden mention of Birmingham Council’s cash crisis stirred something in her. She put aside her notes and delivered a broadside from the heart: councils across the country were facing budget disasters, she told the deputy prime minister, including Conservative ones. She’s much better at that than she is at scripted wordplay. 

Not that she can’t deliver the odd stiletto. Her final question was aimed at Dowden’s reported belief that the Tories are doomed. “Has he finally realised that when he stabbed Boris Johnson in the back to get his mate into Number 10, he was ditching their biggest election winner for a pint-sized loser?”

It was, as it were, a low blow, a joke Keir Starmer would probably have thought of as, well, beneath him. But politics is a rough business, as Rayner well knows. For all that Conservative MPs affected outrage, they can hardly demand a retraction.  Dowden looked down his pieces of paper. They didn’t given him a come-back for that.

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