Oliver Dowden’s first Deputy PMQs was the moment he’d been waiting for all his life. Straight spine, crisp voice, Dowden was the head boy who has practiced this moment ten times and whose mother had reminded him to take it slow.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner came to the despatch box more relaxed, reminding us that she has had plenty of practice. Dowden is the “the third deputy that I’ve faced in three years, and you know what they say, third times a charm”, she winked, as the two dispensed with pleasantries.
Rayner’s occasional face-off with Dowden’s predecessor, Dominic Raab, often felt sparkier, as the pair riled each other up with what seemed like genuine disdain. But today’s sparring suffered from an overwhelming sense of indifference. Like any decent deputies, they came armed with a couple of good gags. Dowden referred to Starmer and Rayner as the “Holly and Phil” of British politics, and mocked surprise at facing Rayner at the despatch box, rather than the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey. Rayner, who is renowned for her dry wit, poked fun at Dowden’s past resignation as chair of the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson. But the jokes were brief, and what ensued was a dry and substance-less Deputy PMQs.
The meat of Rayner’s questions were good, and, when she got to them, successfully highlighted the government’s questionable track records on NHS waiting lists and child poverty (“Is the number of people on waiting lists higher or lower?”, “What level of poverty would he consider to be a success?”). But her preambles were too long-winded and her reasoned attack on the National Conservatism conference – a “carnival of conspiracy” – was a lengthy spiel that got lost in translation.
In turn, Dowden remained clear and competent, and successfully struck a nerve when he accused Rayner of being “too weak to stand up to her union paymasters”, challenging Labour’s commitment to ending the NHS backlog when it opposed minimum service-level legislation. But there was nothing new in his defences or attacks, which seems to suggest the Conservatives have not yet regrouped following their local-election defeat.
The exchange was lacklustre. Familiar ground was trod: Labour continuing to prod Conservative weak spots, while the Conservatives trotted out tired lines on Jeremy Corbyn and broken promises. The parties may be experiencing post-locals fatigue, but they’d do well to formulate some new attack lines to inject some energy back into proceedings.
[See also: The New Statesman’s left power list]