An audition for Rebecca Long-Bailey! Many of us have been waiting with some impatience for Labour to try out a new stand-in for Jeremy Corbyn, on the frequent occasions when he is called away from the Chamber on work of national importance, whether to commemorate the D-Day landings or abuse the President of the United States.
Emily Thornberry has been the Leader of the Opposition’s usual replacement on these occasions, and those of us obliged to sit through her performances have concluded that the Lady Bountiful of South Islington does not have the manner required to represent the People’s Party.
David Lidington, who for perhaps the last time was standing in for Theresa May, said he felt “slightly sorry” for Thornberry, who “seems to have been dispatched to internal exile”. He said this was a warning to “anybody at the Dispatch Box who outshines the Dear Leader’ that he or she “risks being airbrushed out of politburo history at the earliest opportunity”.
Long-Bailey: “He’s full of the banter today.” She said this in the unrancorous tone in which a grown-up might comment on the antics of a small boy, and proceeded to try to make Lidington responsible for the observations of Donald Trump.
The President, she observed, had said the NHS “is on the table” in trade talks, and the Prime Minister had remained silent.
Lidington batted that away without difficulty. Nor was he prepared to embrace Trump’s sceptical views about climate change. He observed that Labour wants to open a coal mine, but not burn the coal.
Long-Bailey claimed Labour does not support the opening of any coal mine – an assertion which produced roars of disbelief from the Tory benches.
After that, the session became rather quiet, and seemed to go on for longer than was strictly necessary. The Speaker might, one felt, have taken the chance to return to the half-hour format, while telling Members to ask shorter questions, and Lidington to give shorter answers.
Laura Pidcock (Lab, North West Durham) accused Lidington of being “just a stand-in while the vultures circle”.
That was unjust. Lidington may not be not Prince Hamlet, but as an attendant lord he is first rate. We shall watch with interest to see what becomes of Long-Bailey, so self-possessed despite being so new. Thornberry, by the way, was rather sportingly in the Chamber.