If you watch Prime Minister’s Questions with some frequency – in which case, we all hope things will improve eventually – it is not unusual to find yourself wondering who exactly this is for. Tony Blair, a veteran of the format who still found himself uncomfortable at the sessions, saw it as an exercise in “the joust”, which is to say, fundamentally not about which questions one might ask but about how they are asked.
For Keir Starmer, who could not do much of day to day politics due to the pandemic, PMQs was useful as both an exercise in party management and as a way to introduce himself to the public. But a good PMQs performance does not make or break a leader – and most of what determines how the session will be remembered takes place outside parliament.
The Labour leader’s absence at this PMQs would not be a problem for a leader who had more to show for at this stage of his leadership; indeed, it could have easily become an asset to show how much talent the Labour party has to offer and how united the party is. But for Starmer, who has a Sideshow Bobian philosophy to his leadership, the fact that an incisive and cheery Angela Rayner put up a good performance against a desiccated Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab is a problem (taking over for the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who is currently away).
A lot was said about Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to abolish the position of Deputy Leader – and while it happened in a manner anyone would struggle to defend – but the truth is that the principle of it was essentially right. Deputy Prime Minister is at best decorative, and at worst, a threat. It was easy to hear a longing sigh from the Labour benches at Angela Rayner’s better jokes and quips, ah, what might have been if things had played out differently. In a post with her own authority, and needlessly antagonised by an amateur Starmer operation, Angela Rayner is not an unrealistic ‘prince across the water’ figure, but one that has real appeal.
And still it’s easy to overplay a strong PMQs performance; Dominic Raab had the airs of someone doing a friend a favour and was fairly bored of it. Any government would have had a hard time defending their record in a week like this, and Rayner will need more than just a good showing to win over her doubters in the Parliamentary Labour Party. However, in many ways those are details: as always, it’s about the joust.
Joker of the week: the ethereal form of Keir Starmer, currently holed up in Labour HQ, like a second rate impression of Donald Trump, meeting with his finest people to discuss the Electoral College.
Watch out for: The blast from the past “cost of living crisis” (oh poor Edward – the Social Review knew him well), based on soaring energy prices and not helped by the government ploughing ahead with their plans to cut Universal Credit while raising National Insurance.
Did it provide entertainment or accountability: If you enjoy overthinking about Labour kremlinology.The Real Winner: Boris Johnson, who like you, did not watch PMQs