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Very naughty boys

Progressive parenting is all very well but sometimes misbehaviour needs a firmer approach

If you’re explaining, they say, you’re losing. So what’s happening when you’re conducting a long semantic argument about whether one of your donors is a racist, or simply someone who says racist things? 

Modern parenting theory suggests that, rather than calling a child naughty, you should tell them that they did a naughty thing. The Conservatives are taking a similar approach with their donors. So when Frank Hester said that Diane Abbott should be shot, and that the sight of her made him hate all black women, he didn’t reveal himself to be an unpleasant man, merely a man who uses unpleasant words. Quite freely. The idea is presumably not to damage his fragile self-esteem. We can only hope for Hester’s sake that admonitions about his language are accompanied by praise for things he has said that definitely aren’t dodgy. If anyone can find any.

Likewise, don’t call Rishi Sunak a terrible politician. Rather say he’s a politician who, however appalling a situation is, can somehow find a way to make it worse. He arrived in Parliament, nevertheless, to cheers. Although, looking at the Tory benches, it was hard to see anyone making the noise. Is it Labour MPs? 

At the same time, at the other end of the chamber, new Reform MP Lee Anderson had slipped in, and taken his seat next to Parliament’s other new dissident, George Galloway. Throw Andrew Bridgen into the mix, and that corner of Parliament is going to be a petri dish for the kind of discussions that get you onto an MI5 watch list. 

“Discrimination has no place in our society,” the prime minister told the chamber, without a hint of irony

But Sunak had bigger problems. This week is Extremism Week, when the prime minister is planning to turn things around in the polls by announcing a crackdown on hate speech in public life. Instead, the news has been all Anderson and Hester. Not since the cops marked Boris Johnson’s Crime Week by releasing the final total of Partygate fines have satirists felt that reality was so clearly overdoing things.

“Discrimination has no place in our society,” the prime minister told the chamber, without a hint of irony. “It is important to distinguish between strongly felt political debate,” he said, “and unacceptable acts of abuse.” And when making that distinction, it helps to ask if the person making the remarks has recently become your party’s biggest donor.

Keir Starmer asked if the prime minister was “proud to be bankrolled” by Hester. “The alleged comments…” Sunak began, and on the backbenches opposite him you could see Abbott angrily mouthing the word “alleged”. The prime minister tried again. “The comments were wrong and they were racist.” The important thing, he said, was that Hester had apologised. “That remorse should be accepted.” Along with any more cheques. 

Starmer went in again, asking what Hester would have to say before his money would be returned. “The gentleman apologised,” pleaded Sunak. It was an odd noun the choose, in the circumstances. Abbott looked like she might be able to suggest some other ones. 

The prime minister had a handy list of distasteful things said by Labour frontbenchers, but Starmer had a line from the Tony Blair Big Book Of Put Downs. “The prime minister is scared of his party,” he said. “I have changed my party.” 

Sunak went to the only place he had left, attacking Starmer for defending dubious people and serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. But Starmer had seen that one coming. “The problem is that the prime minister is describing a Labour party that no longer exists,” he said, ignoring the hoots of derision from the Tory benches at this. “I am describing a man who is bankrolling the Conservatives’ upcoming general election.” 

He wasn’t even done. After last week’s Tory pledges to eliminate national insurance, Starmer has seen an opportunity to turn the “unfunded spending commitment” tables. After a series of questions about where the £46 billion that Labour reckons this would cost would be found, he summed up the situation: “Last week, he promised fantasy tax cuts. Now he is pretending that it can all be paid for with no impact on pensions or the NHS. All we need now is an especially hardy lettuce and it could be 2022 all over again.” Starmer’s tanks are no longer on Sunak’s lawn. They’ve rolled forward, and were last seen heading through his back garden.

There was a fair amount of jeering from the Conservatives, some of them pointing at Galloway as proof that Labour hadn’t changed. But Galloway is very much not a Labour MP. What was more noticeable was the lack of cheering for Sunak. He is the latest prime minister to have lost the crowd. 

There would be more questions about extremism and Hester, and Sunak would continue to flounder. He warned that extremists were trying to “hijack our democratic institutions”, which was probably not a reference to the people funding his helicopter rides. He said he had no plans to silence “peaceful beliefs”,  and as it turns out, not-so-peaceful beliefs.

Through it all, Abbott kept bobbing up and down, trying to ask a question. She wasn’t on the list, but in the past Speaker Lindsay Hoyle has been happy to call people in similar circumstances. This time, perhaps fearful of angering Tories by breaking convention, he didn’t. It was a bad choice: if anyone had a right to be heard, it was Abbott. 

At the end of the session, both Flynn and Starmer would make their way up the steps to where she was sitting. The exchange with the SNP leader was brief and warm. With Starmer it was longer and apparently more tense. It’s almost a year since she lost the Labour whip for expressing some very strange views about race, and while the Labour leader looked solicitous, he’s obviously reluctant to have her back inside the tent. It’s not necessarily that she’s unwelcome, but she’s a person who says unwelcome things.

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