On one side of the Chamber, Candide, also known as Boris Johnson, conveying his unshakeable belief that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and in the United Kingdom we are additionally fortunate to have the best of all possible Prime Ministers.
On the other side of the Chamber, the anti-Candide, also known as Sir Keir Starmer, conveying his sorrowful conviction that Tier Three is, as he put it today, “the worst of all worlds”.
Optimism versus pessimism, hope versus fear, faith versus scepticism. Johnson sounded more trenchant than we have heard him at any point since his near-death experience in April.
The difficulties in his relationship with Manchester had not left him downcast. He loves going out in rough weather, feels himself braced by the rocking motion of the ship of state, had at his disposal the information he required and assured his passengers that together they will win through to happier and healthier days.
Sir Keir spoke for all those passengers who find that a frankly unbelievable promise. But somehow Sir Keir’s blows today did not land. He could not find some way to embarrass the curiously optimistic man at the helm.
Johnson said it was “a bit incoherent” of the Leader of the Opposition “to attack local lockdowns when he wants to plunge the whole country into lockdown”.
But the Prime Minister said this in a more magnanimous tone than he has employed in recent exchanges with Sir Keir. Johnson today presented himself as a unifying figure, respectful even towards those members of the Opposition who suggested, as several of them did, that he wants to grind the faces of the poor.
“I really think the Prime Minister’s crossed a Rubicon here,” Sir Keir protested, “not just with the miserly way he’s treated Greater Manchester, but the grubby take it or leave it way these local deals are being done. It’s corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council.”
The Prime Minister refrained from pointing out, in the manner of a classical scholar, that there is only one Rubicon, and he has not crossed it. Nor did he insist he is not Julius Caesar.
Johnson instead ensured there was nothing miserly in his own demeanour. He came before the House as a unifying figure, “proud of the One Nation support we’ve given”, appreciative of the tremendous efforts being made in every part of the country, confident we shall together win through.
It was hard to see anything more Sir Keir could have done today. For he faced a Prime Minister who may have no right to feel confident, but for some reason does.