Can it be that Sir Keir Starmer has missed his true vocation as a setter of old-fashioned maths problems? He began by stating that “it’s three minutes past twelve” and an emergency call has been made, and demanded: “When would the Prime Minister expect an ambulance to arrive?”
Some of us, if we happened to be Prime Minister, would have been tempted to reply: “You are being ridiculous – it would depend how busy the ambulance service was and what the traffic was like.”
Rishi Sunak, who actually is PM, ignored the question and observed with asperity that if Sir Keir actually cared about ambulance response times he would have supported the Government’s minimum safety legislation.
Sir Keir, undeterred: “For a person suffering from chest pains…every minute counts. When will that ambulance arrive?”
Sunak again declined to hazard a guess. It would depend, one thought, on a host of different factors, including how far away the person suffering from chest pains was.
Sir Keir proceeded to answer his own question. He said in Peterborough an ambulance summoned at 12.03 “wouldn’t arrive until ten past two”, in Northampton until 20 past two, while in Plymouth it would not get there until 20 to three, and these were “not the worst case scenario – just the average wait”.
But if the Leader of the Opposition wanted the average, why hadn’t he said? And if he knew the average wait for an ambulance in Peterborough is two hours and seven minutes, why didn’t he just say so, and ask how this could be acceptable?
Sunak retorted, “I notice the one place the Honourable Gentleman didn’t mention is Wales,” and pointed out that response times there are even worse.
One felt for a moment David Cameron, who almost every week remarked at PMQs on the deficiencies of the NHS in Labour-run Wales, might still be in office.
Sir Keir, sticking doggedly to his script: “By one o’clock our heart attack victim is in a bad way.”
Sunak, however, was not in a bad way. He wore an air of injured innocence as he accused his opponent of being “simply in the pocket of his union paymasters”.
Sir Keir objected that “this is real life”, which it hadn’t seemed to be until now, but then he mentioned “Stephanie from Plymouth” who “was 26 when she died waiting for that ambulance”.
Confronted by a real death the House fell silent, after which Sir Keir suggested Sunak should “stop the political games”, Sunak said “he is a living example of playing political games”, Sir Keir told him to “at least apologise for the lethal chaos under his watch”, and Sunak closed with the laboured accusation that Sir Keir is not just in favour of “the free movement of people” but “the free movement of principles”.
Two delightful children watched the proceedings from the gallery facing Sunak. They at least did not appear to get in the slightest bit bored, so in that respect the pantomime had been a success.