Well that was bleak. With four Ukrainian MPs in attendance, and Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer off this week, PMQs today (16 March) was reduced to a contest – and it was little more than a stand-up shouting session – between two people, Dominic Raab and Angela Rayner, that both party leaders once tried to fire, or at least demote.
Neither leader was wholly successful: Johnson sacked Raab as foreign secretary after the fall of Kabul, but conceded that he could keep his honorary title as deputy prime minister after being moved to the justice department. Starmer, meanwhile, trailed the sacking of Rayner shortly after losing the Hartlepool by-election last spring, but received so much blowback that he was forced to add to Rayner’s role; she now has four titles.
Neither stand-in, in short, is beloved by their party leadership, and today’s unedifying salvos showed why. After starting soberly, and welcoming the news that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been freed, Angela Rayner soon lobbed attack after attack at an unending pitch.
“These uncertain times require a leader with integrity, a leader that works with the security services,” she said – referring to recent reports that Johnson insisted on handing the Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev a peerage despite objections from MI6 – before rising to her theme, “[and a leader] that can be trusted to say the right thing for British diplomacy, and provide security for the British people.
“Instead, Mr Speaker, we have this sorry excuse of a government sat before us. They hike tax on 27 million working people, while the super rich increase their wealth. They watch energy prices rise by over 50 per cent, while the companies enjoy profits they didn’t even expect. And they cavort with Russian oligarchs in luxury villas while neglecting the security of the British people. And remember Mr Speaker, they partied while the country was in lockdown and were unable to see their dying loved ones. Can the Deputy Prime Minister look the British people in the eye and really say this government is doing their best in their interest?”
Was that a question? It was not the criticisms themselves that felt jarring – everything Rayner posed needs answering – but the timing of her attack. No truck was given to the presence of Ukrainian MPs in the chamber, or to any need to focus on how Ukraine can be helped right now in their existential fight for life. Rayner’s rote attacks were familiar to peacetime, but the world is at war. There are perhaps more pressing and precise questions to ask than whether Tories are, as Rayner has said before, no better than “scum”.
[See also: Are Britain and the West doing enough to help Ukraine?]