Sir Keir Starmer urged “everyone listening to get their jabs”, and hurried to get his jabs in first. How he jabbed away at the Prime Minister, and how happy he looked as he did so.
His opponent was on the ropes. Ninety-nine MPs on Boris Johnson’s own side had a few hours earlier voted against him. Never, surely, had he been so weak.
And yet Johnson did not look weak. His manner was playful, as if nobody need take too seriously what had happened to him last night.
There was an ebullience about the Prime Minister, as of a man who enjoys going out on a rough day and confounding his detractors. He too jabbed away at his opponent. If Sir Keir was running the show, we would find ourselves stuck in the European Medicines Agency.
“The Labour Party showed the leadership yesterday that the Government lacked,” Sir Keir retorted, “so weak is his own leadership.”
The judges seldom agree with each other how to score these weekly fights. Some will reckon Sir Keir ended today’s bout ahead on points.
But what any spectator would have to agree is that the Leader of the Opposition came nowhere near striking a knockout blow.
He left the hard work of defeating the PM to the PM’s own side. This may well be astute of him. The Conservative Party has an unrivalled ability to stab its own leaders in the back.
Here is Nigel Birch, one of three ministers who had resigned from the Treasury in 1958, speaking about the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in the confidence debate in the spring of 1963 following the Profumo affair:
“…let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part – the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!”
No Conservative quoted today from Browning’s poem The Lost Leader, and the leader himself did not look lost, but as if, like Macmillan at the time when the three ministers resigned, he was dealing with the insouciance that may be acquired at Eton and Balliol with “little local difficulties”.
We shall see. But as the Commons departs for Christmas, the PM’s ring craft, or perhaps one should say stagecraft, looks unimpaired.