Published:

“Who does the Prime Minister think deserves a pay rise more?” Sir Keir Starmer began. “An NHS nurse or Dominic Cummings?”

Brevity is the soul of wit, and Sir Keir is getting briefer. Johnson could have retorted that it’s much cheaper to raise the pay of Cummings than of NHS nurses, as there’s only one of him.

The Prime Minister might have added that Cummings is worth every penny of the pay rise awarded shortly before his departure from Downing Street, for he had previously devised two slogans of genius: “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”.

But Johnson wishes to remain Prime Minister for another ten or 20 years, so instead declared that “we all owe a massive debt to our nurses”.

He did not proceed to say the massive debt will be paid by giving them a more than one per cent pay rise. But he did say “we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally about the nursing profession, whom we particularly value”.

Can it be that the Government will give ground on nurses’ pay, in order to distract the nation’s attention from pay restraint elsewhere in the public sector?

Sir Keir was not mollified: “He clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.”

Johnson insisted that “we have massively increased funding for our amazing NHS”. The Prime Minister long ago decided, probably on Cummings’ advice, that the NHS is a national religion before which it is essential to bow down and worship.

Sir Keir accused him of being a hypocrite, who only pretends to venerate the NHS: “The mask is slipping.”

Johnson played safe, resorting to a tried and tested line: “We vaccinate, he vacillates.”

Dan Jarvis (Lab, Barnsley Central) bowled another short question: “If the Prime Minister is serious about levelling up the country does he honestly think that favouring the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency over Barnsley for financial support is the best way to do it?”

A moment’s hesitation from the PM as he worked out how to block this delivery: “Mr Speaker, we’ve, er, we are devoted to levelling up across the entire country, and that goes for Barnsley as well as everywhere else.”

Labour has not yet found a way to beat Johnson, but it does sometimes throw him on the defensive.