Toady of Whitehall

Open cruelty was met with equally shameless sycophancy

The final session of Prime Minister’s Questions before an election is rarely a high point in the national debate. This week both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were keen to deliver their scripted lines, ready to be clipped for online video. Even more than usual, they simply talked past each other. Did you know that the government has a £46 billion black hole? Or that Labour always betrays pensioners? Well, now you do.

The exchanges weren’t even the most interesting bit of political film that hour. Just before the session began, the Home Office released a little clip of asylum seekers being rounded up ahead of their deportation to Rwanda.

It was a day of obsequious Tories

You don’t have to be very much of a bleeding heart to feel queasy at the idea of sending a camera crew with immigration officials as they go to arrest a refugee in his pyjamas as an election stunt. If this doesn’t work, maybe next time ministers can see if they win more votes with a film where things get a little rough. Perhaps we could bring back the stocks, or parade deportees down Whitehall, so that the public can throw rotten vegetables.

The mention of pensioners did at least allow the prime minister to give us one decent joke. For a reason no one can be bothered to understand, the Labour leader’s pension from his days as Director of Public Prosecutions is covered by its own piece of legislation, the Pensions Increase (Pension Scheme for Keir Starmer QC) Regulations. “It is,” Sunak said, “literally one law for him and another one for everyone else.”

Starmer meanwhile had a defector to celebrate, in the shape of former Conservative Dan Poulter. “The prime minister’s MPs are following Tory voters in queuing up to dump his party,” he crowed. There have been a lot of Conservative jokes about Poulter’s level of attendance. His new Labour colleagues, meanwhile, may want to check out his choice in art before they drop into his office.

It fell, once again, to Parliament’s Angriest Man to deliver entertainment. Jonathan Gullis, for it was he, rose to cheers, several of them possibly not ironic. As last week, he had prepared a question of inordinate length, covering various talking points from Twitter. If he gets a question next week, it will count as a lecture series.

“We can see the Rwanda deterrent is working,” he began, though you have to squint quite hard for that to be true. “We have now deported our first illegal migrant!” Well, up to a point. Was the original plan to pay people thousands of pounds to leave? And if it was, are we absolutely certain that this will be a deterrent? It is, for people possessed of slightly more imagination than Gullis, possible to think of ways in which smuggling gangs will be able to spin “the Brits give illegal immigrants bundles of cash” to their advantage.

It was a day of obsequious Tories. Bill Wiggin asked Sunak whether he agreed that “if he carries on like this, he is going to win the next election?” Mark Pawsey asked the prime minister whether, given how brilliantly the country was currently run, he could “see any reason why anybody would want to put this fantastic progress at risk?” Karen Bradley simply inquired whether he would join her in encouraging people to vote Conservative. Somehow Sunak managed to negotiate his way through this tricky slalom.

At least Desmond Swayne did it with style. He was, he revealed, the man who signed the Starmer pension into law. “He owes me one!” he declared. The Labour leader laughed at that. In truth, he has reasons to be grateful to pretty much everyone on the Conservative benches. His job would be much harder without them.

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