Jeremy Corbyn is like the lights in a planetarium. Whenever he goes off, stars appear. Last week the radiation came from Hilary Benn. At PMQs today it was Angela Eagle who outshone her leader. With Cameron away, George Osborne manned the despatch box but he showed not a flicker of joy or anticipation as he uttered the golden words. ‘Today I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others…’
Beneath the tomb-stone expression was this. ‘It’s mine already – try and take it off me’.
Ms Eagle was dressed for a PTA meeting in a twinkly caravanning jumper and a Primark jacket. Her no-nonsense blonde hair was cropped short at the back with a flicky fringe. Two scarlet lines of lipstick were the only hints a ‘power’ look. Her manner, combative and nerveless. But there was warmth and irony as well. She was amused by the occasion but not too much. And she delayed her questions beautifully. She mocked David Cameron for having ‘pre-resigned’. And she lamented his absence on ‘a seemingly endless European renegotiation tour’ – ‘no wonder we had to buy him his own aeroplane’ – then she paused. ‘So,’ she said, taunting Osborne with a girlish smile, ‘how’s it all going?’
Osborne stiffened. ‘The good news is we have a party leader who’s respected abroad.’ Which was OK. But the Eagle was still ahead.
She moved onto Europe. This involved a dig at Corbyn which, such is her guile, was disguised as a tribute. She read out a letter, or pretended to, sent by ‘Donald in Brussels’. Donald Tusk is one or other of the EU’s many presidents. He’s fearful that a Brexit may be destabilising.
Osborne played it straight. He lauded the UK, (i.e. himself), for attracting great rivers of inward investment since the referendum was announced. And he invoked Tony Blair – ‘since we’re quoting missives’ – who has called Labour’s current crisis ‘a complete tragedy.’
That should have knocked Eagle off course. But she had a far tastier Blair quote. ‘Mouth the words “five more Tory years” and you feel your senses and reason repulsed.’
Her main attack was Osborne’s ambition. Her technique: the outflanking manoeuvre. She simply mentioned the chancellor’s desire to replace Cameron and added with practised nonchalance, ‘But he might be worried about someone a few places down from him.’ (Theresa May).
Nothing happened at first. Then it started. The jeering, the catcalling. The slow, unsettling uproar. Eagle watched, flicking a hand across her nose, like a boxer seeing a stricken opponent sink.
‘She’s looking cross,’ yelled Labour. Mrs May, squirming inwardly perhaps, drew her features into one of those awkward smiles that are supposed to seem carefree but which make her look like a Gloucestershire headmistress discovered in a Soho sex-shop.
Eagle had played the Commons beautifully, like an orchestra.
In reply Osborne was solid. But that’s all. His prepared joke was too prepared. ‘Most opposition parties are trying to gain momentum. Labour are trying to get rid of it.’ And he let his swagger show, his entitlement. He assumed a puzzled-and-slightly-bored face when Angus Robertson asked about weapons-grade plutonium being trundled around Scottish B-roads.
Nature is against Osborne too. The sleek gaunt skull and the bloodless disapproving stare belong to a Victorian pawn-broker. All he needs is a top hat.
At the end the Tories gave up a communal sigh, ‘ahh’ as if urging their annointed heir to carry on speaking. They seem to have forgotten the conventional wisdom of the leadership race, (and the Grand National). First to the front, first to fall.