Rishi Sunak awoke just over a year ago and found himself famous. He was plucked from obscurity to become Chancellor of the Exchequer, and won golden opinions for the audacity, competence and good humour with which he devised dramatic measures to save the economy from destruction by the pandemic.
So on realising that it would not be possible, because of another commitment, to sketch Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow, we were delighted to seized the chance to sketch instead this morning’s Treasury Questions.
We recalled watching Sunak’s Budget speeches, but had hardly ever seen him scatter his stardust over some more humble parliamentary occasion.
Stardust was not today scattered. Sunak and his team – Steve Barclay, Jesse Norman, John Glen and Kemi Badenoch – instead set out to wear down their opponents by being calm, competent and unexciting.
These tactics are by no means new. As Walter Bagehot observed in 1871,
“The faculty of disheartening adversaries by diffusing on occasion an oppressive atmosphere of business-like dullness is invaluable to a Parliamentary statesman.”
The pandemic favours such tactics. It is much harder to rattle a minister when the Chamber is almost empty. Without an audience, there can be no laughter, no derision, no embarrassment.
And when most MPs appear by video link, there can be no spontaneous interventions, no heckling to test whether the minister is as sure about everything as he or she wishes to appear.
The best question was put by Alex Cunningham (Lab, Stockton North):
“Will he guarantee the future of the steel industry in Hartlepool?”
This was better than the rest because it was so short and to the point. For a moment, the Treasury team was startled by such brevity, and no one rose to answer.
“Anyone will do,” Cunningham added in a jovial tone. He got Badenoch, who referred to her earlier answers about the steel industry.
Torpor settled once more over the Chamber. Afzal Khan (Lab, Manchester Gorton) dispelled it for a few moments by attacking Boris Johnson:
“That the Prime Minister said he would rather see ‘the bodies pile high’ than enter another lockdown is utterly despicable. My mother and parents-in-law were not not bodies – they were my family, my loved ones.”
Khan wants the Covid Memorial Wall made permanent, and asked the Chancellor to find out how much this would cost.
Sunak sent his condolences, and the condolences of the whole House, and said that if Khan wrote to him about this proposal “I’d be happy to take a look at it”.
The hour wound its way to an end. Labour had asked worthy questions, and the Government had given worthy answers, but one felt no real scrutiny had taken place, and that even if it had, the whole occasion was so dreary and disheartening no one would have noticed.