Rayner outwits a condescending Raab in a bloodless PMQs pantomime

The Convict had escaped, so the Tory and Labour deputies ran through the motions in a knockabout that was pure ritual

At times like these a minister gets to find out who his friends are. Usually the government frontbench is packed with needy cabinet ministers, desperate to show their support and adoration for Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions. But with the Convict away in Madrid at the Nato summit, it was largely a B-list affair. Only Rishi Sunak and Grant Shapps had bothered to make the effort to come to the Commons for a rare turn at the dispatch box from Dominic Raab. And they were probably only there because they had forgotten Johnson was missing and were too polite to head for the exit. So they were stuck.

Raab would probably have given PMQs a miss too if he had been given the chance. Because even he now recognises his own futility. There was a time when a PMQs between the two deputies might have had some edge. Box office in its own right. A chance to shine: to show the backbenchers what they were missing.

But not even Dom is stupid enough to imagine he is in with a shout of being Tory leader any more. He had his chance back in 2019 and the Tories wisely decided that having a not-very-bright psychopath with anger management issues was not the best look for their party.

So Dom has slumped into a state of near pointless being. He’s achieved pretty much all he’s going to achieve. And most of that poorly. Now he’s just got to fill up the rest of his life in a state of mindless activity. File this PMQs as occupational therapy for a minister who has reached the end of his political career in his 40s. Let’s face it, the Rwanda Panda is the only leader dim enough to give Raab a cabinet post. And his Esher and Walton constituents may well deliver the coup de grace at the next election and vote him out.

Nor are Angela Rayner’s immediate prospects of replacing Keir Starmer much better, however much she or many Labour MPs might like it. Rather, her future is very much tied to the Labour leader’s. If Starmer gets a fixed-penalty notice, she will do so too. In which case, both have pledged to resign. And if the police do exonerate them, there will be no vacancy for Rayner to fill as Labour is highly unlikely to have another leadership contest before the next election.

All of which made for a somewhat low-key PMQs. With Starmer and the Convict there’s always a personal undercurrent. They genuinely dislike each other. But Rayner and Raab can’t be bothered to care that much about their opposite numbers. They just sort of rub along OK. Kick a few lumps out of each other for form’s sake, but all in a reasonably disinterested way. There are no hard feeling because there would need to be some feelings in the first place. With them, it’s PMQs as pure ritual. Even more bloodless pantomime than usual.

Raab began by explaining that the Convict had been away at the Commonwealth heads of government, the G7 and Nato. He tried to make it sound as if this were some kind of Brexit bonus rather than the usual activities of any British prime minister. Rayner suggested the timing must have been perfect for Johnson as he was desperate to leave the country after two humiliating byelection defeats. Were the cabinet really serious about propping Boris up until 2030 and beyond? Sunak looked horrified at the prospect.

We then lapsed into some gentle knockabout. Inevitably Rayner came out on top. Because she always does. She’s far more quick-witted than Dom. And she has a sense of humour. Back and forth we went. First with Raab trying to think of all the things the Tories had done – er, keep inflation below 10%, increase the overall tax burden, that sort of thing – while insisting the Tories wanted Boris to stay leader longer than Labour wanted Keir, and with Rayner inviting the Conservatives to call a general election if they felt so invincible. There were no takers for that idea on the government benches. The next election can’t come slowly enough.

On we went. Raab attacked her for not being able to say what she thought about the rail strikes and for having voted against Trident. Most cringe-making of all, he gave a condescending wink and implied she had no business going to Glyndebourne. Presumably he thinks opera isn’t for the working classes. So much for the levelling up agenda. God knows what Dom thinks of Glastonbury, where the tickets are far more expensive. Shame Dom hadn’t bothered to listen to The Marriage of Figaro himself. He might then have realised it was about servants getting the better of Count Almaviva.

Rayner just rolled with the punches. Pointing out that Dom had once claimed food banks were just lifestyle choices for those with a cashflow shortage. People who had maxed out the credit card on champagne. Or Prince Charles when there was no Qatari prince to hand over a shopping bag full of notes. Observing that the same Tories who were trying to shout her down had just passed a law preventing Steve Bray from protesting outside Downing Street. And he had just sat on his sun lounger moaning the sea was closed while Boris prioritised the evacuation of pets from Afghanistan.

But it was all fairly inconsequential stuff and no one really noticed when the session petered out. Of far more significance was the news online that the privileges committee had issued an “all persons broadcast” calling for anyone who had any info on Johnson to come forward. All respondents would be treated in the strictest confidence.

Here was the chance for anyone in No 10 – or elsewhere – to come forward without being fearful of being nobbled by Johnson or the cabinet secretary for speaking out. A public duty even. I’ve even put myself forward. I can list at least 10 times Boris has lied to MPs, the police and the country without breaking into a sweat. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but this could really be the end of the Convict. Fingers crossed.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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