A fierce struggle broke out today for possession of the moral high ground. Rishi Sunak began the day dug in behind three massive bastions known as Integrity, Professionalism and Accountability.
Sir Keir Starmer bombarded him with Sir Gavin Williamson, rather in the manner that the bodies of infected animals used to be catapulted into besieged towns in the hope of spreading fatal diseases among the defenders.
Sir Gavin blew up last night, when he resigned from the Government. Sir Keir hoped that by hurling the remains of the minister across the Despatch Box, it would be possible so to contaminate the three great bastions of Integrity, Professionalism and Accountability that the Prime Minister’s whole position would become untenable.
According to Sir Keir, it was a fatal mistake ever to have appointed Sir Gavin, whom he described as “a pathetic bully” and “a sad middle manager getting off on intimidating those beneath him”.
The Prime Minister had been, Sir Keir declared, “too weak” to stand up to “a run-of-the-mill bully”.
Here, one might retort, was a run-of-the-mill attempt to bully the PM by adopting a high moral tone. The Leader of the Opposition sounded as if he himself already occupied the highest moral ground of all, from which he gazed down with pious contempt at his feeble, hypocritical opponent.
Mr Sunak did not get where he is today by becoming flustered in the face of such attacks. He spoke in a tone of impregnable reasonableness, determined to indicate that his conscience is clear and he feels at ease in his own skin.
Having reiterated his belief in Integrity, Professionalism and Accountability, he proceeded to suggest that Sir Keir is an out-of-touch weirdo: “He’s not on the side of working people. That’s what the Conservatives are for.”
But whether working people will be excited by this battle to sound holier, or prolier, than thou may be doubted.
Two Labour MPs, Karl Turner and Liam Byrne, attacked Mr Sunak for being one of the richest men in Britain, but this resort to old-fashioned class war somehow failed to raise anyone’s spirits.
On the plus side, Mr Sunak is so brief and businesslike, so ready to rest content with some not very remarkable form of words, that he encourages questioners to be brief and businesslike too, so PMQs no longer drags on long past its allotted half hour.