It was the battle of the deputies at PMQs today. With Boris Johnson gallivanting around Europe, the mantle fell to Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. That left Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner with the job of skewering the government.
What did we learn? Not a lot. Rayner and Raab were content to throw personal pot-shots and derivative talking points across the despatch box. The warning signs about what was to come arrived early on, when the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps offered Raab a grinning nod of encouragement as the latter entered the chamber – as if Raab was there for his am-dram debut, not parliamentary accountability. Raab went on to deliver jibe after jibe about Rayner’s rumoured desire to take Keir Starmer’s job. The first two were well delivered. By the third, the joke was flat. (Though, drawing on Starmer’s interview at the New Statesman’s Politics Live event yesterday (28 June), Raab also jibed that the Labour leader had “no plan” for government having “wiped the slate clean”.)
As for Rayner, she resorted to saying Raab didn’t have the backbone to resign from the cabinet. Riveting.
The convivial atmosphere of the Commons chamber encouraged both sides to see the exchange as little more than workplace banter. At one point, Rayner, who could barely suppress her relish, said “Mr Speaker, talking about Nato, where was the honourable member when the situation in Afghanistan [deteriorated]? On a sun lounger.” To which the former foreign secretary laughed.
Why was the quality so low? Politics is entering a stagnant phase, with the summer recess only three weeks away. Labour is anxious not to be drawn into government talking points, such as the Northern Ireland protocol (which puts a trade border between it and Britain), and is afraid of seeming weak on Brexit. Meanwhile the strikes have dissipated, even if they will likely reappear over the summer. That leaves the parties with few issues they want to be debated. The result is Rayner and Raab speaking past each other, savouring the chance to drag up embarrassing quotes from their opponent’s past.
Such was the noise from the backbenchers that at one point the Speaker intervened: “Order, honestly, I want to hear the question, I want to hear the answer. And I hate to say it, so do your constituents. Think about them for once instead of yourselves.” Indeed. But at least Rayner and Raab seemed to have a good time.