The PM is in the middle-east on her ‘strong and stable leadership’ tour. Replacing her at PMQs stood Damian Green, a hesitant, avuncular figure who seems ill-suited to front-line politics. He’s uncomfortably tall, and he dips his chin as he speaks to make his troubled, slender jowls less conspicuous. His hair has quit the fray and left a dignified grassless dome as its memorial. His demeanour is all antiquarian gentleness. He might be the head of parchments at a museum of medical history. How he reached the cabinet is a mystery.
His opponent, Emily Thornberry, is a resourceful court-room performer who started the session by getting the jury (that is, us,) on her side with a few self-deprecating jokes. She welcomed the Harry/Meghan alliance which she compared to Trump’s hand-clinch with Theresa May at the White House last year:
‘This is one Anglo-American couple that we, on this side, will be delighted to see joining hands’
She added a dig at herself, anticipating England’s appearance at the rugby league cup final:
‘I, for one, will be waving my St George’s flag’
Then to business. She asked Green about the NHS – ‘our NHS’ as both sides now call it – and quoted figures stating that 40 per cent of nurses quit the full-time job within a year of qualifying.
Green seemed hesitant and uncomfortable, overawed by his situation. He misnamed the government’s ‘Agenda For Change’, calling it, ‘Action For Change’. Thornberry moved onto his home turf and quoted a report from his local hospital:
‘Severe staff shortages mean patient safety is at risk. And the only option is to cancel out-patient clinics’.
The Labour benches shivered with disgust. ‘It gets worse,’ said Thornberry. A public meeting tomorrow was due to ‘consider closing the A&E for good.’
She took the fight directly to Green, mentally jabbing her finger at him. ‘What are you doing to our NHS?’ she hollered, breaking protocol by addressing the minister instead of the chair. Speaker Bercow seized his nano-second in the spotlight and rose to highlight her error. ‘I am entirely blameless in this matter,’ he said.
Green, still a model of donnish exactitude, quietly corrected Thornberry. The meeting, he said, was ‘about the strategic transformation plan. And I’m entirely in favour of option one which suggests not just leaving A&E but expanding specialist services there.’
The Tories crowed with pleasure at this furtively devastating counter-attack. The whispering earthquake hadn’t finished: ‘I would strongly suggest she doesn’t try to think she knows more about what’s going on in my constituency than I do.’
Honours were shared evenly. Father of the House, Kenneth Clarke, who is also Remain’s chief mourner, rose to his feet. His tie was all dishevelled and his frondy hair curled upwards as if influenced by static electricity. He offered the house a historical observation that ‘richer member states have made larger contributions because of the macroeconomic benefits of belonging to the EU’. He said the proposed exit-fine was ‘welcome…’ and he hailed it ‘as a method of calculating future settlements’. This seemed to suggest that the exit-penalty should become an annuity payable every year, until the EU dies or the UK does.
If so, Clarke can lead the army of Remain donors who will, no doubt, affirm their love of the EU by making regular benefactions to Brussels after March 2019. If they need transport to collect the cash they can borrow a bus from Leave.