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The best thing that can be said about Sir Keir Starmer’s PMQs performance was that at least he managed to turn up.
For the previous 24 hours, the normally loquacious Labour leader had been mysteriously silent.
As the nation ground to a halt and dozens of his MPs scrambled to express ‘solidarity’ with rail union strikers, Sir Keir was missing in action.
There’d even been speculation that he might develop a diplomatic bout of Covid to avoid his weekly joust with Boris and union-bashing Tory backbenchers. But Sir Keir duly materialised – only for things to start to go downhill at the pace of an accelerating InterCity 125.
Loitering for the optimum moment to take his seat, he fatally mistimed his arrival, allowing Boris to upstage him.
Kate Osborne MP speaks at Wednesday 23 June PMQ’s. Also a row behind to the left, in pink, is Kijm Johnson MP and Paula Barker MP who were all on the picket line for the RMT strike
With Tory cheers still echoing around the chamber, Sir Keir slumped down to apathetic silence. The reticence of the Labour MPs was probably because they were uncertain of which Sir Keir had turned up.
Was it Scargillite Starmer, who’d launched his party leadership campaign with a video reminiscing about his time on the Wapping picket line?
Or Starmer the Strike-Buster, who’d tersely claimed on Sunday that he opposed the industrial action?
Initially it seemed he might swerve the issue completely, as he rattled off just about every subject instead of the most crippling round of network industrial action since the days when British Rail was promoted in adverts by Jimmy Savile. The economy. Tax. The Tory confidence vote. The Conservative candidate in today’s Wakefield by-election. Flight cancellations. Driving licence delays.
Just as it looked as if he was going to pretend the unfolding industrial anarchy was a figment of hard-pressed commuters’ imaginations, Sir Keir seized the nettle.
‘Now we’ve got the biggest rail strike in 30 years,’ he roared. Or might have roared, if he hadn’t been drowned out by the cheers of Tory MPs delighted he’d finally fallen into their trap. A revitalised Boris swooped. ‘It’s a disgrace, as we’re planning to make sure you don’t have ticket offices that sell fewer than one ticket every hour, that he [Sir Keir] yesterday had 25 Labour MPs on the picket line backing the strikers,’ the Prime Minister goaded.
Kate Osbourne, pictured centre left, is pictured on the picket line in Bromley for the RMT strike
This enraged Angela Rayner, understandably given that she’d have loved to join them but had been reduced to sending out a supportive tweet instead.
To his credit, Sir Keir ploughed gamely on. ‘Rather than blame everyone else, why doesn’t he do his job, get round the table and get the trains running,’ he demanded of the PM. Unfortunately, in truth, Boris was successfully doing a very important part of his job… hammering the leader of the Opposition. ‘The reason his authority is on the line is because they take £10million from the unions,’ the PM chided. ‘That’s the fee the learned gentleman opposite is receiving for the case he’s failing to make.’
At that, Labour MPs flew into a rage. Not because they wanted to defend their leader. But because they are aware that, in fact, the unions are giving less money to Labour because they think Sir Keir’s a busted flush.
Recognising he was on a hiding to nothing, Sir Keir tried to cut his losses, shifting his attention to Armed Forces Day and bankers’ pay. But he hadn’t reckoned with his own frontbencher Kate Osborne.
Labour MPs at London’s Victoria station yesterday, including Kim Johnson, Liverpool Riverside, pictured holding the left flag
‘Can the Prime Minister tell me when he’s going to stop meaningless soundbites and instead start supporting working people?’ she asked.
Which would have been a good question, if she hadn’t been one those Labour MPs who’d snubbed Sir Keir and joined the pickets on Tuesday.
Boris retorted: ‘If she wants to support the working people of this country, can I suggest she gets off the picket line!’
The Tory benches exploded with the loudest ovation of the session. A summer of discontent is coming. And it’s mostly for Sir Keir Starmer.