Rishi Sunak arrived in the Chamber for his first PMQs in the expectation that he would enjoy himself. No sign of a new boy’s nerves, that disabling fear of not knowing how to behave and looking idiotic without quite knowing why.
The new Prime Minister kept breaking into a smile. He evinced the confidence of a victor who believes he knows what to do, or at least what to say for the next half hour, and feels himself to be among friends, with even the SNP just waiting to be won over by his charm.
What a contrast to last week, when Conservative MPs listened in hopeless and embarrassed silence to Liz Truss. Now they had a leader they could cheer, who held out hope of raising their spirits by walking all over Sir Keir Starmer.
So this was a big day for Sir Keir. He needed to wipe the grin off this sassy little new boy’s face, take him down a peg or two and if possible reduce him by the end to tears.
But Sunak was made to feel even more at home by the first two questioners. Alan Whitehead (Lab, Southampton Test) greeted him as “a fellow Saints Southampton supporter”, while Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) said “I thought I would already have been offered a ministerial post [laughter]” and added that the new PM has got “my full support [incredulous whoops of laughter]”.
Sir Keir rose. He too welcomed the new PM. This was “a significant moment in our national story”. As he launched into a short homily, one could not help reflecting that if his present job does not work out, he would be a natural for Thought for the Day.
At last, the attack line came: “Was his Home Secretary right to resign last week for a breach of security?”
Sunak said he knew their exchanges would be “robust”, but he hoped they would also be “serious and grown-up”. Here at once was a sign that Sir Keir, who considers himself more serious and grown-up than any mere Conservative, was not going to have things all his own way.
The Prime Minister proceeded to say that Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary in question, will be “cracking down on criminals”, whereas Labour is “soft on crime and in favour of unlimited immigration”.
Sir Keir bridled. He retorted that “far from being soft on crime I ran the Crown Prosecution Service for five years”, after which he dismissed Sunak as “so weak he’s done a grubby deal” with Braverman, denounced him for “still defending non-dom status”, and accused him of having promised, at “a garden party in Tunbridge Wells”, to take money from the impoverished North to spend in the affluent South.
None of this discomforted Sunak. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, and he said it. If this had been a game of chess, one would say he seemed to be thinking at least one move ahead of his opponent.
“I know the Right Honourable Gentleman rarely leaves North London,” Sunak remarked apropos the Tunbridge Wells attack, and pointed out that there are actually depressed rural areas in the south.
To attack North London is to hit Sir Keir in a sensitive spot, for whenever the Labour Party has succeeded, it has been by forming an alliance between its North London leadership and the working class.
And here was Sunak setting out to show Labour voters that Sir Keir is actually living on another planet, or at least in another district, and the workers can expect better things from the Conservatives.
Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, had a crack at the new PM, but was met by the same baffling mixture of high-minded friendliness and low blows.
The PM declared “my desire to work constructively” with the Scottish Government, and in the next breath pointed out that “violent crime is rising in Scotland”.
This was a formidable debut. No one had managed to wipe the grin off Sunak’s face.