Tinker, Tailor, Rayner, Raab

From Lebedev to Corbyn — Tories and Labour trade blows on the company they have kept

Artillery Row

“We must,” Labour’s Liz Twist was telling the House of Commons, “ensure that Scotland’s wind is not being used to power Putin’s war.” Her point was to do with investors and energy trading, but it conjured an image of abundant gales from Bute being transported to gust-poor parts of the Urals. Via a wind tunnel, presumably, or a bagpipeline.

Nearby, Dominic Raab was limbering up for Deputy PMQs. Boris Johnson had gone on a trip to Saudi Arabia. The justification the government gives for this visit, days after the country executed 81 people, is that the prime minister believes Britain has been too dependent on buying energy from a murderous dictator. If he is consistent in nothing else, Johnson remains absolutely committed to running a self-parodying government.

As he waited to begin, Raab looked, as he always does, stiff and nervous. He’s not a bad parliamentary performer, but he doesn’t give the impression of enjoying the anticipation much.

Opposite him was Angela Rayner, who often manages to needle him. She wanted, first of all, to welcome the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori in Iran. Would the government commit to a review of why they had spent so long in prison? Had Johnson’s loose-lipped comments about Zaghari-Ratcliffe made things worse?

A different Boris Johnson that only members of the Cabinet can see

The government front bench feigned shock at this suggestion. Their goal is to imply, by sad head shakes and appalled expressions, horror that anyone would suggest Boris Johnson is not the most dignified statesman to grace their benches since William Gladstone, a man with the moral courage of Abraham Lincoln and the wisdom of King Solomon. The idea that the prime minister is a magnificent diplomat is only slightly undermined by the fact that everyone watching knows he quite recently wrote a poem calling the Turkish president a “wankerer”.

Raab, too, was horrified at Rayner’s question. “She should not give succour to the despotic regime that detained our nationals in Iran,” he said. Quite right. Giving succour to despotic regimes is the government’s job, and Johnson was busy doing it.

Rayner moved onto the question of Evgeny Lebedev’s peerage. Why, she asked, had warnings from “our world-leading British intelligence agencies” been ignored? This was in itself noteworthy. Under the last Labour leadership, Britain’s spies were considered deeply suspect.

Yet again, the deputy prime minister feigned shock at the suggestion that Boris Johnson – Boris Johnson! – might have behaved improperly in some way. It’s not as if he only appointed rich friends to the Lords. He put his brother in there, too. “Frankly, she should know better,” he said, leaving the rest of us wondering, as so often, whether there’s a different Boris Johnson that only members of the Cabinet can see.

Rayner persisted. Johnson had, she said, given a seat in parliament to “the son and business partner of a KGB spy”. Up in the gallery, four members of the Ukrainian parliament were watching, possibly pleased to hear something that reminded them of home.

Raab was forthright. Rayner’s suggestion that the prime minister would have overruled the security services was “sheer nonsense”. In any case, he had a “Get Out Of Rayner Questions Free” card: hadn’t she wanted Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister? Tory MPs loved this. Rayner seemed knocked sideways. She asked about energy security, but Raab kept going on Corbyn.

At which point an odd thing happened. Lindsay Hoyle piped up. “I hate to say it, but the Deputy Prime Minister cannot keep going back 12 years as a defensive mechanism,” he said. It was a bad moment to say it, as Corbyn was a lot more recent than that, but it’s a warning shot to ministers who have increasingly been answering every question by saying every problem is the fault of a government that left office in 2010. The Speaker is not going to let them do it.

Later on, Labour’s Matt Western had another go on Johnson’s unfortunate friendships. “Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what first attracted the Prime Minister to the billionaire Russian oligarchs?” This is of course the heart of the matter. Johnson, a man with a lot of bills to pay, is not very discriminating in the rich folk he hangs around with.

Raab tried his best. Johnson, he said was “a very social individual”. Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it.

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