The Maybot blinked uneasily. Her handlers have done their utmost to keep her well hidden in recent weeks, but the one time they have no choice but to allow her out in the open is prime minister’s questions. The woman without qualities is now the woman without authority.
Still, no one could say the Maybot hadn’t been fully primed for her day out. She had been told Jeremy Corbyn would pile in on the public sector pay cap and the Labour leader duly obliged. There seemed to be some dissent among the cabinet ranks, and with firefighters having been offered a 2% rise, perhaps she would like to clarify exactly what the government’s position was.
“I value the work of all public sector workers,” the Maybot said. Though not quite enough to pay them more. Her hands were tied by the pay review board, whose recommendations had been made in accordance with the guidance she had given it. She didn’t appear to see the irony in that. The only reason the firefighters were getting more dosh was because she had forgotten to put the squeeze on them. She promised it wouldn’t happen again.
Corbyn increasingly acts as if he believes he is now the prime minister. So much so that he doesn’t always remember to ask questions at PMQs. Rather, he makes statements of intent and dares the Maybot to respond. Before the election, the Maybot would have picked him up on this piece of lèse-majesté, but now she doesn’t have the self-worth.
Nor did the Tory backbenchers give her much support. Jeering as the Labour leader talked about a teacher called Dave who hadn’t had a pay rise in seven years didn’t necessarily create the caring, sharing look the Maybot was trying to portray. And she just had to suck it up when Corbyn pointed out that if she could find £1.5bn to save her own job then maybe she could spare a little for the public sector. There really was no answer to that.
The Maybot’s punishment for screwing up the election has been to be forced to stay on as leader. Ideally she would have walked, but instead she’s been stripped of Nick and Fiona and left rudderless to take the inevitable economic and Brexit hit. Death by a thousand cuts. To both her and the country.
There were some encouraging noises from her backbenches as the Maybot defended the Conservatives’ record on bringing down the deficit over the past seven years – something she never bothered to do throughout the election campaign – but inside she was dying. The cheers weren’t for her. They were for the man sitting next to her, Freewheelin’ Phil Hammond, and George Osborne. The two men she hated most in the world. And two men who reciprocated those feelings.
Everyone knew she had been keen to lift the public sector pay cap, only to be stamped on by Freewheelin’ Phil. And everyone knew she had no time for the austerity economics of the editor of the Evening Standard. She had spent the whole of her first term as leader distancing herself from the ideological legacy of the Cameron-Osborne axis; now she found herself with no option other than to defend them.
Her humiliation was all the greater because her MPs so clearly believed she had performed rather better of late. She was little more than an empty shell having her strings jerked by the chancellor. By the time she was asked about Brexit she had reverted to full Maybot – babbling a series of random words in a defiant show of incoherence.
Freewheelin’ Phil the Puppeteer made no effort to conceal his enjoyment. He smiled and joked throughout the Maybot’s discomfort, taking his passive-aggression to new heights. It might have looked like an outward show of support, but both he and the Maybot knew better. Their secret.
At the end of PMQs, Freewheelin’ Phil was detained by an urgent question on public sector pay from the shadow chancellor. But only very briefly. Why bother to answer John McDonnell when he could get a junior to make a fool of herself? And few people are more guaranteed to make a fool of themselves than the chief secretary to the treasury. Liz Truss is someone who would be out of her depth in a paddling pool.
Freewheelin’ Phil left the chamber as Truss fumbled over her notes and stumbled over her sentences. It had been a good morning’s work. Two colleagues skewered for the price of one.