Jeremy Corbyn was flanked by two men wearing expressions of careful impassivity. They gave the impression of having prepared themselves not to grimace if their leader made himself look ridiculous, and not to laugh out loud if someone else did so.
Today at least, Tom Watson and Jon Ashworth need not have worried. Corbyn was better than usual. As he demanded more spending on the NHS, he managed to sound quite resolute.
But to bring PMQs back to life, Corbyn needs sometimes to win the encounter, and this he seems as far as ever from doing. Yvette Cooper spent years failing to lay a glove on May as Home Secretary, and Corbyn looks fated to repeat the experience now she is Prime Minister.
One reason for this is that May has already brought about, by the extreme parsimoniousness with which she reveals her plans, a sharp diminution in expectations. People are resigned to the probability that she will say no more than she intends to say, which is very little.
May was flanked by two women, Priti Patel and Amber Rudd. Patel, who had just taken questions on international development, is the finest dropper of “Gs” since William Brown, in the Just William stories by Richmal Crompton. She reassured us that her department “is workin’ across government”.
Rudd looked tired, but being Home Secretary is very hard work. May herself had rings under her eyes, but being Prime Minister is hard work too.
Next to Patel sat Boris Johnson, who has just been to the United States, but did not seem tired at all. He looked prosperous but respectful.
May batted away Corbyn’s questions, and played a dead bat to Angus Robertson, who has developed, as the SNP’s leader at Westminster, a pleasingly sombre and statesmanlike tone. He suggested that if there is no functioning government in Belfast which she can consult about Brexit, she ought to postpone invoking Article 50. May naturally declined to agree with him.
She took the chance to affirm her support for a new nuclear power station on the coast of Cumbria, where there will soon be a by-election. She also understands people’s concerns about the possible downgrading of services at West Cumberland Hospital.
This was characteristically professional of the Prime Minister, but part of her idea of professionalism is to avoid being the slightest bit exciting. In this she resembles Miss Prism, the governess in The Importance of Being Earnest, who tells her pupil: “The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.”
The British press will have to supply the sensationalism which May is so determined to deny us. I for one am confident that Lord Copper and his staff, though nowadays much reduced in numbers, will be able to come up with something before too long.