Jeremy Corbyn now cuts the sorriest figure in Westminster. The crackle has gone out of his cornflakes. The chain is rusty, the tyres are flat, the mechanism can barely move. Like Big Ben itself, this old bell has lost its clapper.
The Labour leader still inspires a vocal greeting at PMQs but it’s the sort of semi-ironic ovation that might greet a fat schoolkid as he completes the 100m in just under two minutes. When Corbyn speaks he recites his questions in a zestless drone. And yet a great opportunity is being missed. Labour’s leadership candidates should take turns to spar with Boris as part of the contest. But no. We’re stuck with a man who wouldn’t even pass an audition to play himself.
The leaders squared up over NHS spending which the Tories plan to increase. By how much? Not enough, of course. That’s Labour’s eternal position. Boris could promise to spend the entire government budget on health and Corbyn would read out a fault-finder’s report complaining that such paltry sums are bound to starve the NHS to death. (Incidentally, these fault-finder’s reports, which proliferate throughout the system, drain huge sums from front-line services.)
Denouncing Tory plans as ‘a gimmick’, Corbyn turned fondly to his recent manifesto pledge for ‘free personal care’ and ‘more support for carers’. For a tiny moment the old spark seemed to awaken in his eye. It was rather sad. Boris dealt with it gently.
‘I’m glad he’s still fighting on the manifesto he submitted to the attention of the British people last month.’
Ian Blackford of the SNP was his usual fizzy self as he delivered his two questions (i.e. two rants) at the PM. But Blackford has a problem – the facts. He likes to claim that Scotland is ‘being dragged out of the EU against its will’, and today he worked himself into a lather, with extra cream on top, by raging at the ‘cruel and punishing policies’ being proposed by a PM who, he said, ‘shows utter contempt for Scotland’s democracy.’
And here are those facts. Scotland wasn’t on the ballot paper in the 2016 referendum. Voters were asked about the fate of the United Kingdom – which included Scotland thanks to the result of the referendum in 2014.
Blackford, rather bizarrely, called Boris ‘a democracy denier’. The house groaned. Boris fired the insult back at its source and everyone cheered.
To dodge reality Blackford resorted to mythological figments. He accused Boris of treachery.
‘The only union he’s interested in is the union with Donald Trump.’
He then conjured up ‘our precious NHS’ as a sort of helpless damsel which Boris is using as bait to persuade the dim-but-powerful American monster to finalise a trade deal. Naturally, in Blackford’s imaginary cosmos, this bargain is covert and therefore corrupt and illegitimate.
‘What secret back-room deals are being done?’ he thundered. ‘The public deserve the truth… What price will this prime minister make us pay for his toxic Trump deal?’
The alliterative final words point to hours of rehearsal in front of Blackford’s king-size mirror. Boris dismantled his argument tersely but with relevant points. The SNP itself insisted that the 2014 referendum was a ‘once in a generation’ vote. And their obsession with independence has led them to neglect Scottish schools where attainment in maths and science are falling in the PISA league tables. He finished with a tart command to Blackford: ‘Change the record.’
Boris can’t win this one. By paying Blackford too much attention he may appear ‘rattled’. By being too dismissive he’ll seem ‘arrogant.’ Either impression will cheer the separatists. So Blackford will continue to strike his ‘helpless victim’ pose every Wednesday afternoon at 12.17 pm for the next five years.