Boris Johnson accused Sir Keir Starmer of being a total abstainer: “last night neither he nor his troops could be bothered to vote.”
Sir Keir retorted that when he abstains he comes to the House to explain:
“When the Prime Minister abstains he runs away to Afghanistan and gives the taxpayer a £20,000 bill.”
A hit, a palpable hit, for everyone in the Chamber remembered how, as Foreign Secretary, he avoided an awkward vote on Heathrow by flying to Kabul.
Johnson had been held up to public ridicule as a a coward, a man who, when things got too hot for him in London, sought refuge in the Hindu Kush.
He had to strike back, for like the two sides in a Sicilian blood feud, the Tory and Labour families expect, as a matter of honour, that their leaders will at once expunge any aspersion on their courage.
The Prime Minister rose to his feet and said he would take Sir Keir more seriously “if he could actually be bothered to vote”. That jibe bounced harmlessly off the Leader of the Opposition: the House had heard it already.
Johnson stood on the brink of humiliation, about to lose a knife fight to a North London lawyer. A sudden glint of steel as the Prime Minister went for Sir Keir’s throat with a pre-sharpened witticism:
“Captain Hindsight is rising rapidly up the ranks and has become General Indecision.”
A low-tech weapon, some will say, which has no place in modern warfare, but there’s less to go wrong with an old-fashioned, pre-electronic, thoroughly wooden club, and traditionalists loved it. Just when Johnson seemed down and out, he had saved the day by recycling an old joke.
The rest of PMQs was less exciting. There are, alas, some serious-minded people who wish the whole thing could be unexciting.
But in that case, nobody would watch it. We need the thrill of a knife fight in which either man could end up with his reputation cut to pieces.
We need winners and losers, and both men were in danger of losing this bout, though in the end neither of them did. On to next week.