Spent Sunak and scattergun Starmer off their game in autopilot PMQs | John Crace

Rish! drags himself to dispatch box but no sign of that other man of the moment, Matt Hancock

It’s been a busy few days for a prime minister who prefers to stay hidden indoors. On Monday, he had had his Windsor tryst with Ursula von der Leyen. Quelle tendresse! The brush of elbows under the portrait of the queen. The lingering glances across the lectern. The sweet riens. You’re the best. No, no. You’re the best. Yes. It really had been quite the day. He still hadn’t quite come back to earth. And why hadn’t she phoned like she had promised? Why did he care so much?

On Tuesday, he had been over in Northern Ireland to sell his deal. Doing everything that he liked least. Meeting the little people. Hello, guys. Yes, you guys. Hello, miss. Practising his glottal stop to make it sound as if he had the common touch. Standing around on a cold factory floor. Checking the phone anxiously to see if U had messaged at last. Nothing compares to U.

No wonder, then, that Rishi Sunak looked and sounded a little washed out at prime minister’s questions. He was well overdue a lieu day. Take a leaf out of Thérèse Coffey’s book. She would never pass up a chance for a lie down.

But Rish! is nothing if not diligent. Even when his heart and mind isn’t really in it. So he dragged his tired body into the chamber, scarcely bothering to acknowledge the relatively muted cheers. Had he been more engaged, he might have wondered why the cheers were no louder for the Man of the Moment. As U had called him. The only time he became animated was when Labour MP Ruth Cadbury suggested that £25K for a crystal statue of him might be a bit much. Cheap at the price. And Ursula would love it.

Still, no matter. Because Keir Starmer wasn’t really on his game either. He too seemed distracted. His heart not in it. Maybe he just didn’t want to give Sunak any credit for the Windsor framework. Hell, he could have negotiated something similar in half the time. Maybe he was just having a bad day at work. Either way, this was a PMQs where no lasting damage was done to either leader. Just a piece of performance theatre for the TV cameras.

The Labour leader opened by recycling his own speech from Monday. No harm done as no one had listened at the time, as Rish! had cornered the media bandwidth. Was it government policy for the average family to be poorer than its Polish equivalent by 2030? In which case, everyone should get used to saying Auf Wiedersehen, Pet in Polish. It was a crap gag. Still, no one under the age of 50 would have realised it was meant to be funny.

Rish! rose to the dispatch box reluctantly. He was doing lots to help with the cost of living crisis. Though nothing immediately came to mind. He was glad the price of energy was falling, but it was only right that the government put up the price of energy in April. He may want to rethink that one in this month’s budget. And by the way, Labour would increase inflation with a whole load of unfunded spending promises.

By any standards, this was pure bollocks. A prime minister on autopilot repeating soundbites he had learned out of any sync with reality. As though he had lost his sense of history. The only reason Sunak was in No 10 was because the Tories had elected a moron who had crashed the economy with a kami-Kwasi budget. Something Starmer was quick to point out. Though by now, no one was listening to anything.

Thereafter, Starmer adopted a scattergun approach. The Tories weren’t building any houses. Sunak had introduced a windfall tax that obliged Shell to pay precisely nothing. Sheer genius, that. Something about non-doms. Keir was also on autopilot, counting down the clock. Sunak started babbling. Answering questions he would have liked to have been asked rather than ones he had been. If he’s not careful, he’ll morph into Boris Johnson. The Convict was a past master at this.

Keir finished with a swipe at Matt Hancock, who had been daft enough to trust the journalist Isabel Oakeshott with 100,000 WhatsApp messages. Someone with a mixed reputation. To say the least. Most are wary of her. Anyone who agrees to Oakeshott as their ghostwriter is taking a punt. Most people would want Brinks-Mat Kenneth Noye to ghost their story rather than Oakeshott. Less chance of ending up in the nick, for a start. Just ask Vicky Pryce. Don’t worry about the jail time, Vicky. I need the byline. The narcissist’s narcissist.

Sure enough, Oakeshott had been at it again. Having grabbed the WhatsApps (she says she wrote the 120,000-word book for nothing, out of the goodness of her heart even though she was ideologically opposed to most of it), churned out Matt’s self-serving Pandemic Diaries – you’re better off with my Digested Read – and written a piece in the Spectator saying what a good bloke Matt was, she had then betrayed him by handing over the messages to the Telegraph and insisting he had tried to kill everyone in care homes. Even for her, this was shameless.

Rish! was non-committal, saying we should wait for the inquiry. Though noticeably not defending Hancock. Then, everyone hates Matt these days. Not just Isabel. Instead it was left to the junior health minister Helen Whately – someone with a clean pair of hands during the Covid pandemic – to answer an opportunistic urgent question from Labour’s Liz Kendall. Though why Labour was so sure the Telegraph and Oakeshott should be occupying the moral high ground was anyone’s guess. Always a first time, I suppose.

There was no sign of Hancock in the Commons. Perhaps he was too busy making sure he hadn’t also let Oakeshott see his WhatsApps to his wife. And Gina. Or maybe he just doesn’t think he now has a reputation to defend. He’s just celebrity fodder. Someone who will do anything for an appearance fee. Whately looked thoroughly pissed off at having to stick up for her former boss. Matt is now in effect friendless.

Still, Whately did a fair enough job. It was like this. Boris Johnson was useless. Couldn’t do basic maths. Matt was useless. She was useless. Everyone had been useless. They had wanted to do more tests but after handing them out to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s family there had been none left for care homes. It was an explanation that had the ring of truth. Oakeshott and the Telegraph had it wrong. There was no scoop. No cover up. Just, yet again, a government of incompetent halfwits.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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