Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: The underdog comes out fighting and attacks his opponent as a hypocrite for hire

26 Jan

A crowded House, a buzz of anticipation. What show they had come to see?

A man in trouble. The police have been called. He has been holding, or attending, parties which were against the rules.

It is even said that cake has been involved. The neighbours on the other side of the street, led by a distinguished lawyer called Sir Keir Starmer, are up in arms.

They compete with each other to condemn the accused man. By his shameless conduct, he has brought shame on the whole community.

He has polluted the very air that he breathes and muddied the pure waters of truth. He must resign forthwith and in an ideal world would be replaced at once by Sir Keir. So say these crusaders for decency and honour.

What is the demeanour of the accused? Does he look beaten or ashamed? Has the fight gone out of him?

No. Boris Johnson looks as if he is enjoying himself. As any heavyweight parliamentarian must, he loves going out in rough weather, the rougher the better.

Today is rough. The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, repeatedly calls the House to order. He says their constituents want to hear what the contestants are saying.

We are not sure this is entirely true. Many will have turned on the telly to see a fight, the bloodier the better.

And for there to be a proper fight, a proper spectacle, it is essential that the wounded contestant, the Prime Minister, demonstrates fighting spirit.

Which he does. He comes out swinging. Though bleeding from innumerable arrows, he takes a series of mighty swings at his opponent, who has been “relentlessly opportunistic”, “flip-flopped from one side to the other” throughout the pandemic, and worst of all is “a lawyer, not a leader”.

Anyone who refuses to understand why that is an insult, and an effective one, will never understand Johnson’s appeal to the wider public.

People took to Twitter to name great men who had been lawyers: Gandhi, Mandela, Lincoln.

All beside the point. In English usage, a lawyer is a hypocrite for hire: someone who takes a fee and argues a case in a fancy manner without believing a word of it.

When Shakespeare’s line “let’s kill all the lawyers” is performed, whether or not it ought to be applauded is irrelevant, for it invariably is.

Here was Johnson reverting to his earliest and most successful persona: the man who takes on the Establishment and wins.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Lab, Brighton) struck back: “I would prefer to be led by a lawyer than a liar.”

The Speaker made him withdraw the word “liar”, which Russell-Moyle had used repeatedly, attributing it to his constituents rather than himself.

Johnson said Russell-Moyle didn’t know what he was talking about. But in fact this PMQs did much to clarify the struggle, and to reveal on which side people belong.

The Prime Minister stepped forward as a man who loves this country and is getting all the big calls about its future right. He portrayed his opponents as priggish, prating, moralistic hypocrites, or in common parlance as lawyers.

Everyone who watched the fight will have known instinctively who they wanted to win. In North London, they will have scored it for Sir Keir. In many other places, and indeed on the Tory benches, they will have scored it for Johnson.

More fence sitting from Starmer as Labour MPs challenge deportation flight

4 Dec

This week, the Home Office’s plan to deport 50 convicted criminals to Jamaica for violent, sexual or drug offences was disrupted after a campaign by Labour MPs.

Two days before the flight was scheduled to take off, Clive Lewis wrote to Priti Patel to demand she “cancel the planned deportation of up to 50 Black British residents” adding that deportations “epitomise the Government’s continued ‘Hostile Environment’ agenda”, and that “[t]ackling institutionalised racism starts one step at a time.”

Nearly 70 mostly Labour MPs signed Lewis’s letter, including Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Thandie Newton wrote to airlines asking them not to carry out the Home Office’s orders. After a series of legal challenges, 30 criminals were taken off the flight, including a rapist and a London murderer.

Where was Keir Starmer in all this? Many noticed that he was not one of the signatories on the letter, nor was his deputy Angela Rayner, suggesting they disapprove of Lewis’s intervention (which, ironically, challenged a policy set by the last Labour government). But he has done nothing to indicate an opinion either way. Perhaps he thinks, like the Covid tiers, he can abstain his way out of the matter.

The incident raises questions about Starmer’s leadership, not least because of the degree of influence opposition backbenchers now have over Home Office policy. It is unusual for them to write these sorts of letters without the backing of shadow cabinet ministers. Notably, 12 other frontbenchers did not sign. So who is in charge?

Labour’s National Executive Committee even appeared to tell Starmer and Rayner off for not signing the letter, writing: “we are alarmed that there has been no comment from you both in response to the deportation flight scheduled for 2nd December… we request that you make a decisive and compassionate intervention.”

In his Labour Party Conference speech, Starmer famously promised “This is a party under new leadership”. He was keen to project the sense that he would bring the various factions of Labour together, though recent events are yet more evidence of how difficult that goal is, with Corbyn and McDonnell calling the shots elsewhere.

The bigger question, of course, is what this means for Starmer’s future policies. Many will remember him promising at his party’s conference “never again will Labour go into an election not being trust on national security”. But his refusal to comment, let alone act, on a matter involving murderers, rapists and violent criminals is hardly going to reassure many voters.

Part of the reason Starmer is reportedly quiet on some issues is down to advice from Joe Biden’s campaign team, which has instructed him not to get involved in “culture war issues”. But this mindset seems to have gradually extended to all manner of political policy. Often people think Starmer is calculated in his political moves, but too much fence sitting does not a Prime Minister make.