Boris Johnson had an easier time than at his last two PMQs. He adopted a more magnanimous tone, which suits him better.
This was a compliment to Sir Keir Starmer, who by absenting himself for a Covid test, enabled the Prime Minister to feel under no real pressure, and therefore to sound kinder and gentler.
Angela Rayner stood in for the Leader of the Opposition. She was rather good, but did not constitute a threat. Johnson felt no compulsion to strike low blows in order to neutralise her, as he sometimes attempts under cross-examination from Sir Keir.
The Prime Minister knew there was no profit in roughing up a woman. He instead insisted that he shared her pain, and her love of care workers. He said she was “right to express the frustration of people across the country” at delays to testing.
Soon he was telling her she was “absolutely right” to raise some other issue. The PM was daring to be dull: not a manner to which he cares to resort, but everyone obliged to defend the performance of the British state finds in the end that dullness has its uses.
Rayner sought to provoke him: “Next time a man with Covid symptoms drives from London to Durham it’ll probably be for a Covid test.”
Johnson remained amiable, so she accused him of treating the restoration of grouse shooting as the Government’s top priority, in order to curry favour with his friends and benefactors who own grouse moors.
At last, we thought, we could sit back and enjoy a bit of old-fashioned class war. The ancient Labour sport of toff hunting was alive and well.
Surely Johnson would strike back with a word in praise of Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957-63, whose reputation as a moderniser was latterly somewhat obscured by photographs of him on grouse moors.
Johnson was too disciplined to take the bait. What a professional. He remarked that Labour was “carping from the sidelines” and “raising issues that are tangential”. He himself preferred to believe that “with the common sense of the British people” the crisis could be surmounted.
So this was a sad day for those of us who cherish outdated stereotypes to do with grouse moors. But it was quite a good day for Johnson.