“Is irony dead?” Tim Loughton (Con, East Worthing and Shoreham) asked Rishi Sunak. The answer is yes, at least on the evidence of this PMQs.
It is true that the loud cries of “Hear hear” which greeted Sunak as he entered the Chamber at 11.59, just before the start of PMQs at noon, sounded ironical. Such exaggerated enthusiasm for the PM must contain an element of mockery.
But after Loughton had started the session by observing that “the Leader of the Opposition apparently doesn’t know what a woman is”, Sunak responded in a literal rather than ironical spirit: “I’m certain what a woman is. Is he?”
Sir Keir Starmer declined, understandably, to take up the challenge of defining a woman, and declared: “This is Mr 24 Tax Rises.”
Again, the literal rather than the ironical approach. Some Labour researcher has gone to the trouble of counting the supposed tax rises, and coming up with an implausibly accurate figure, but actually the jibe works better without any number: “Mr Tax Rises”, or better still “Mr Tax”.
Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs that understatement worked best against the succession of Tory leaders he faced:
“So I defined Major as weak; Hague as better at jokes than judgment; Howard as an opportunist; Cameron as a flip-flop, not knowing where he wanted to go. (The Tories did my work for me in undermining Iain Duncan Smith.) Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring – but that’s their appeal. Any one of those charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal. Yes, it’s not like calling your opponent a liar, or a fraud, or a villain or a hypocrite, but the middle-ground floating voter kind of shrugs their shoulders at those claims. They don’t chime. They’re too over the top, too heavy, and they represent an insult, not an argument. Whereas the lesser charge, because it’s more accurate and precisely because it’s more low-key, can stick. And if it does, that’s that. Because in each case it means they’re not a good leader. So game over.”
Sunak today accused Starmer of “rank hypocrisy”, while Starmer attempted to persuade us that Sunak is “clueless about life outside of his bubble”.
Each charge was made without the ironical understatement which might have rendered it credible. We witnessed an exchange of carefully prepared insults which convinced no one who was not already convinced.
Stephen Flynn, for the Scots Nats, asked what “serious and legal route” is “available to a child refugee seeking to flee Sudan and come to the UK”.
A good question, which elicited a not very specific answer, with the Prime Minister insisting that this country “has a proud record” of welcoming refugees.
At 12.18 Jacob Rees-Mogg left the Chamber, followed at 12.20 by Danny Kruger. It is possible they were going to broadcast to the nation, but they may have decided this PMQs was proving a waste of time.