Damian Green, who is still being investigated over alleged sexual harrasment, deputised for Theresa May at today’s PMQs (the Prime Minister is in Jordan). Though Green’s appearance could be seen as a vote of confidence by May (the PM has received an interim report), Emily Thornberry was determined to exploit the First Secretary of State’s discomfort.
Thornberry (who, as before, deputised for Jeremy Corbyn), began with a series of well-crafted jokes. With an eye to May’s appearance with Donald Trump, she quipped that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were “one Anglo-American couple we on this side will be delighted to see holding hands”. And, before anyone else could, Thornberry added that she would “of course” be waving her St George’s flag for England’s rugby team.
Her first question to Green was ruthlessly scripted: “Is he happy to be held to the same standards in government that he required of others while he was in opposition?” A notably nervy Green replied: “I think all ministers should respect and obey the ministerial code and I think that’s a very important part of confidence in public life.” As Thornberry reassured him that she wasn’t “going there”, the First Secretary of State despondently shook his head.
The shadow foreign secretary, well-armed by that master of the political dark arts, Damian McBride, continued: “I merely wonder if he remembered the question he asked 17 years ago…’what percentage of new nurses recruited in the last 12 months are now working full-time?'”
A hesistant Green made a banal defence of the government’s record and, as usual, condemned Labour’s record in Wales. Though Thornberry’s delivery was variable, she had several potent statistics (“More than 40 per cent of newly-recruited nurses are leaving full-time employment within their first year”), and revealed that a hospital in Green’s constituency had warned of the crisis caused by the Conservatives.
She concluded: “Only £350m to cope with the winter crisis and [the Chancellor] was able to find 11 times that amount to spend on a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Isn’t that the very definition of a government fiddling away whilst the rest of the country burns?” Though Green returned rhetorical fire by declaring that while Labour wasn’t preparing for Brexit, it was preparing for “a run on the pound”, his muted performance spoke of his political enfeeblement.
In contrast to Thornberry, the pugnacious Labour MP John Mann, did “go there”, inviting Green to apologise to the victims of sexual harassment who the government had been “letting down”. He replied: “I absolutely agree that both this place as an institution and all the political parties need to improve complaints procedures and other aspects of the culture of politics to make sure young men or young women interested in politics are not in any way deterred from playing an active role in it.”
Though Green may yet survive, today’s performance confirmed that he will rise no higher. Thornberry, however, once again demonstrated why she could.