Things are getting back to normal. The Cenotaph has been liberated from its protective wrapping and the Prime Minister is crashing about like a Tory Democrat, amusing the public by abusing the Establishment.
Winston Churchill’s statue is still, rather annoyingly, covered up. But Boris Johnson bears a closer resemblance to Winston’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who for a few years in the 1880s was unbelievably rude to Gladstone, to the huge amusement of anyone who regarded that high-minded statesman as a hypocrite and a prig.
To Sir Keir Starmer falls the unenviable task of playing Gladstone. The Leader of the Opposition has the necessary moral seriousness.
The Government had on Tuesday been forced into a U-turn on free school meals by Marcus Rashford, a 22-year-old footballer. Some opponents might have sought to ridicule Johnson for being so comprehensively outplayed by Rashford.
Starmer instead sought to force Johnson onto a higher moral plane: “The Prime Minister’s chuntering. He might like to listen. I’m sure the Prime Minister’s read the report.”
It was pretty clear the PM had not read the report, which mentioned 600,000 more children living in relative poverty.
But he was not going to let himself be portrayed as an unfeeling Tory toff, so insisted that absolute poverty has declined.
Starmer now referred to the “anticipated rise” in poverty. Johnson at once saw his chance, remarked that Starmer is “talking about what he calls an anticipated rise,” and protested that “a new concept is being introduced into our deliberations.”
For himself, the PM went on, he would rather discuss “what has actually happened”. He asked whether, in Starmer’s opinion, it is now safe for schools to open – a question he accused the Leader of the Opposition of ducking last week.
Starmer retorted that he was the one asking the questions: “If the Prime Minister wants to swop places, I’m very happy.”
Johnson saw, from Starmer’s silence on the schools question, that he had found a sensitive spot, and pressed home the attack: “We didn’t have an answer, did we Mr Speaker… The unions won’t let him say. A great ox has stood upon his tongue.”
People began to laugh. The Chamber is thinly populated, but the laugh was against Starmer.
As when Lord Randolph derided Gladstone, this was in many ways unfair. It was certainly disrespectful. Johnson exuded an impudent freedom: a refusal to take Starmer as seriously as Starmer takes himself.
In these days of moral earnestness, there is a market for levity. But Starmer need not despair of conquering Johnson. After all, Lord Randolph almost immediately went too far, and destroyed himself.