Dominic Raab entered a sparsely filled Commons chamber today (16 November) to a muted cheer from his backbenchers. It was the battle of the deputies. With Rishi Sunak at the G20 summit in Indonesia, his deputy prime minister faced off against Angela Rayner. Both of them usually relish sparring.
Not today. Less than two hours before the session, Raab asked the Prime Minister to launch an investigation into bullying allegations against him, having received two formal complaints about his behaviour when he was foreign secretary and justice secretary. “I’m confident I’ve behaved professionally,” Raab said – his answers were more restrained than usual.
Perhaps unbalanced by the last-minute news, Rayner struggled to pivot from her measured comments in support of Poland and Ukraine to the indignation she tried to muster over these bullying charges. Her climax was a call for the government to “drain the swamp”, but the Trumpian rhetoric lacked her usual fluency.
Part of the reason for the hollow atmosphere in the chamber is that most MPs are waiting for the Autumn Statement tomorrow (17 November). Before then, jibes about unemployment figures and economic growth lack substance. As I wrote in yesterday’s Morning Call newsletter, Labour does not want to lay out its tax and spend policy two years away from a general election. Instead, it will offer hints. Hence Rayner’s third question on whether the government would scrap the non-domiciled tax rule: a policy Labour hopes will highlight that Sunak’s wife held such a status, and signal that it would make the wealthier pay more tax. But none of this is new.
As for the bullying allegations against Raab, what did we learn? First, Raab said an ethics adviser – who would probably conduct the investigation – is being swiftly recruited. In other words, the Prime Minister still hasn’t appointed one despite promising to do so during the leadership contest in the summer. That gives the government time to delay. Even when someone is appointed, investigations can take a long time to conclude, which allows No 10 to deflect awkward questions by deferring to the investigation.
Another story from today’s PMQs was Tory disunity. After the exchange between Raab and Rayner, the Conservative MP Esther McVey said she would not vote for tax rises unless High Speed Rail 2, the long-planned train route to the north of England, is scrapped. Many Tories spent all summer extolling the virtues of low taxation but now the government is likely to ask them to change direction. The switch will be painful and you can be sure that Tory MPs will try to extract as much as they can before walking through the government’s voting lobby. That will make tomorrow much harder for Jeremy Hunt.
[See also: Is Dominic Raab in danger?]