Angela Eagle rose for her first PMQs to the rare sound of enthusiastic cheering from the Labour benches. The shadow business secretary and shadow first secretary of state (who stands in for Jeremy Corbyn when David Cameron is away) was given a warmer welcome than her leader usually is. After her deft performance against George Osborne, MPs were still cheering at the end.
Eagle began by challenging Osborne on the government’s response to the floods, prompting the Chancellor to announce a £50m fund for families and businesses affected. But Eagle calmly responded by pointing out that spending had already been cut by £115m this year.
She later moved on to Cameron’s “endless” EU renegotiation, the cause of the PM’s absence. “He’s been jetting all over the place – no wonder we had to buy him his own plane,” Eagle, who honed her skills as shadow leader of the House, quipped. “Can the Chancellor tell us, please, how’s it all going?” But Osborne had a sharp riposte: “The good news is we have a party leader who’s respected abroad.” When Eagle quoted Tory MPs’ low opinion of Cameron’s European plan, he went one better: “I’m not sure I’d be quoting the views of backbenchers if I was speaking for the Labour Party, most opposition parties are trying to get momentum, they’re trying to get rid of it.”
At this point, some opponents would crumble. But the redoubtable Eagle fought on. After noting that Osborne had failed to comment on his leadership ambitions (“Does he really aspire to be Britain’s first post-EU prime minister?”), she referenced a female rival before theatrically pausing as all eyes turned to Theresa May (“she knows who she is”). “I’ve got a letter,” she continued, in imitation of Corbyn, “It’s from Donald [Tusk] of Brussels”. Rocking with laughter, the Labour and Tory benches hadn’t enjoyed themselves this much for months.
As expected, Osborne quoted Tony Blair’s mournful Spectator piece on Corbyn’s Labour (a “tragedy”) but Eagle was again well-prepared, quoting the former PM’s declaration (albeit from 1996) that “Just mouth the words ‘five more Tory years’ and you feel your senses and reason repulsed by what they have done to our country.” Her reference achieved the rare feat of getting Labour MPs to cheer their erstwhile leader.
The remainder of the session was notable for Osborne’s statement that he did not believe Donald Trump should be barred from the UK (“I think the best way to confront the views of someone like Donald Trump is to engage in a robust, democratic argument about why he is profoundly wrong”) and for Tim Farron’s mounting, and justified, fury as the Speaker failed to call him to ask a question on his flood-hit constituency. The Lib Dem leader, a tenacious champion of his seat, had to settle for a Point of Order.