An estimated half a million people off work. The biggest day of strikes in decades. The country close to a standstill. You might have thought this would have been uppermost in people’s minds at prime minister’s questions. But not so much. Keir Starmer thought better of it. He wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to say. Labour’s current position has barely progressed from “I wouldn’t have started from there”. Rishi Sunak is even worse. He hasn’t yet worked out that he’s prime minister and could therefore end the strikes. Someone should have a word.
Instead, the Labour leader chose to focus on sleaze. Not a bad substitute. And a relatively easy win. First he started with Nadhim Zahawi. Rish! must have hoped he’d heard the last of the former Tory party chair whom he finally got round to sacking last Sunday. Sorry to bring him up again and all that, said Starmer. But in the interests of dotting the Is and crossing the Ts could we run through the timeline again? Just so everyone could be reassured that the government had acted with professionalism, integrity and accountability.
Sunak bounced nervously from one foot to the other. A hundred days into his Downing Street tenure and he still doesn’t look entirely comfortable in the job. As if, at a subconscious level, he knows he’s not entirely cut out to be running the country. He wants to be liked too much. Too needy.
And in his heart, he’s just not that invested. When push comes to shove, he’s not that bothered if people are better off or not. I mean, he’d quite like them to be but he’s not prepared to put himself out. It’s the immunity of the super rich. He doesn’t live normal people’s experience. So his first reaction is almost always the wrong one. He struggles to convince himself, so no wonder so many of his backbenchers now have their doubts about him. The enthusiasm of their support diminishes week on week. He is the Anti-Messiah.
Let me take you through the timeline, said Starmer, sounding every bit like a prosecuting brief trawling through the evidence of an open-and-shut case. Did Zahawi inform you of his – ahem – unusual tax affairs before or after you appointed him to the cabinet? And how come no one in No 10 had read any of the newspaper reports published in July that detailed Honest Nadhim’s local difficulties?
Sunak looked startled. He was just naturally a very incurious person. And so were all of his staff. They all made it their business to know as little about everything as possible. Rish! still couldn’t work out why he hadn’t received the lottery payout he had been promised in that email which had gone to his spam folder. But look. He had an ethics adviser whose job it was to keep him up to speed on the morality of his government and, much to his astonishment, it had been decided that Honest Nadhim hadn’t been quite so honest as he had hoped. End of story.
Er ... not quite. Most people could see that Nadhim was a wrong ’un without needing an ethics adviser. Just from the basic facts that were in the public domain. Ah, said Sunak. You never could trust basic facts. Besides, the Labour leader had never done anything about Rosie Duffield. This was true. It’s a piss-poor look for Labour MPs like Lloyd Russell-Moyle to be shouting down and abusing women in the Commons, and Starmer should have done more. Though not even Keir’s enemies believe he is a misogynist.
Whereas many of Rish!’s friends have come to the conclusion that the Tory party is riven with sleaze – the accumulated moral decay of 13 years in office – and that he isn’t the person to deal with it. He’s just too weak. The job too hard. Starmer went on the attack again. This time with Dominic Raab. Didn’t Sunak ever wonder whether the deputy prime minister was the right man for the job given there were 24 bullying allegations against him? And how would he feel if a member of his family had to work for him?
The vein on Raab’s forehead went into overdrive. Sitting right next to the prime minister where he could be caught sweating on camera wasn’t necessarily a good look. Certainly not for Rish! Defender of the bullies. Psycho Dom started shaking his head vigorously and repeating “no comment” over and over again. At least, that’s what it looked like he said. He closed his eyes, willing himself to regain control. In his mind, he went to his happy place. Dashing out the chamber to murder two random strangers, only to return five minutes later bathed in blood. Indulge the anger. And relax. Free the Dom One!
Starmer moved on to Boris Johnson. So many targets, so little time. He knew The Convict had no moral standards to degrade – a liar was gonna lie, a crook was gonna crook – but he just thought he’d put it out there that fixing jobs for people organising a personal loan and expecting taxpayers to underwrite his legal fees looked well dodgy. Rish! was outraged but had nothing except some feeble lines about the strikes – better late than never – to offer. Labour was just in hock to a bunch of militant nurses. The teachers were scum. He might regret this when he realises many of the strikers are a great deal more popular than he is.
Things rather fizzled out after that. The SNP’s Stephen Flynn again challenged Sunak to say one good thing about Brexit – “The Brexit ship is sinking,” he said, though it could have been the Brexit shit – and Rish! could only invent some doggybollox about everyone being so much better now than they were 13 years ago. Read the room, Rish! Read the room. His words died on his breath. He died on his feet. It wasn’t his worst PMQs. But there’s only so long you can tread water when you’ve nothing to say. Sooner or later you slip under the performative politics waves.