Sir Keir Starmer roused himself for a supreme effort. Last week, he had failed to wound the Prime Minister at a time of great vulnerability, when 148 of Boris Johnson’s own MPs had just declared they had no confidence in him.
This week, Sir Keir was determined to do better. He began by pointing out that Britain is set for lower growth than every major economy than Russia, and demanded: “Why?”
Excellent. A short question, giving less scope for evasion, or at least making evasion more conspicuous.
But Johnson answered the question. He said British growth will be lower because “we came out of the pandemic first”, and assured the House that “we will return to the top of the table”.
Sir Keir then continued as if Johnson had given no answer, which admittedly is often the case, but this time there was at once a feeling that the punches thrown at the PM were missing the target.
The Labour leader proceeded to make strained references to Star Wars and Love Island, which required quite a few words. He has been accused of being boring, to which the correct response is surely to dare to be dull: to provide the seriousness which Johnson does not provide.
The House was turbulent. The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, had to call repeatedly for silence so he could hear what was being said, and began one of these calls to order with the words, “I think we need to get to the end of the question.”
A roar of laughter at Sir Keir’s expense, for while the Speaker intended no criticism of him, we did indeed need to get to the end of the question.
Yet the Leader of the Opposition went on for some time yet. He had relapsed into verbose self-righteousness, and was getting nowhere, for in response to a long question, the Prime Minister can simply pick whichever part is easiest to answer.
The offensive had ground to a halt just as Sir Keir was quoting some of the harsh criticisms of the PM made by Tory backbenchers.
For a few moments, those backbenchers looked discomfited, as well they might. They are the people with the power to get rid of the Prime Minister.
But the moment passed and the attack petered out. When the smoke of battle cleared, the Prime Minister was still there, leaning at ease on the Despatch Box, one hand in his pocket as he launched a succession of shameless counter-attacks on Labour for allegedly supporting the rail strike and wanting to rejoin the Single Market.