Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer touches on a sore point about Cummings

16 Dec

Michael Fabricant (Con, Lichfield) began PMQs with a low blow by referring to Sir Keir Starmer as a “smarmy lawyer”. Boris Johnson remarked that this is “the season of goodwill to all men”, requested “perhaps just a little less carping” from the Leader of the Opposition, answered almost none of Sir Keir’s questions, and instead tried to fob him off with questions of his own.

Sir Keir must one day soon retort: “The duty of an Opposition is to oppose.” Those words were used by Lord Randolph Churchill, a Tory adventurer who for a brief period enchanted the working class by being amazingly rude about Gladstone.

Johnson likes to be badly behaved too, and appeared with hair that was messy even by his own high standards. Sir Keir invited him to justify the £40,000 pay rise conferred, as the world has just learned, on Dominic Cummings.

The name “Cummings” did not pass Johnson’s lips. He instead claimed that Sir Keir “totally trivialises the efforts of the British people” to get the virus under control.

At this point, Sir Keir should have asked again, in four or five words, about Cummings. Prime ministerial evasion would have become more obvious when offered in response to a short question.

Sir Keir instead deigned to take a swipe at Fabricant – “this isn’t smarmy lawyers” – before quoting some stuff said by doctors, followed by some advice to speakers put out by the Wellingborough Conservative Party:

“Say the first thing that comes into your head. It’ll probably be nonsense, you may get a bad headline, but if you make enough dubious claims fast enough you can get away with it.”

“Is he the inspiration for the newsletter,” Sir Keir inquired to laughter, “or is he the author?”

This was felicitous. Johnson himself smiled, attempt to talk over Sir Keir, and on rising to his feet retorted: “He can’t attack the Government if he can’t come up with a view of his own.”

Which is nonsense. Anyone in the country can blame the Government without being obliged to come up with an alternative view. That is what the Prime Minister, in particular, is for: to take the blame, and do so even in the season of goodwill.