Sir Keir Starmer looked and sounded triumphant, as well he might. Behind him sat the victors of the Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth by-elections, and Starmer took pleasure in congratulating the former, Alistair Strathern, for defying “the odds, history, and of course the fantasy Lib Dem bar charts”.
Strathern burst out laughing, as did most of the Chamber, at this reference to the Lib Dems’ well-known habit of inflating in their leaflets their level of support.
Rishi Sunak joined Starmer in welcoming the two new Members, and observed that “after all I suspect the new Member for Mid-Bedfordshire may actually support me a bit more than the last one”.
Strathern could not forbear to join in the general roar of laughter: his Conservative predecessor, Nadine Dorries, was a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side.
After this, the exchanges became less amusing, and our attention wandered to the top of Sunak’s head, shown in the photograph above this article. How many white streaks have appeared in what until recently was an unbroken expanse of dark hair.
But at the Despatch Box, seldom Sunak looks worried. After he put a question to Starmer, the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, intervened to remind him: “It’s Prime Minister’s Questions, not Opposition Questions.”
Starmer proceeded to accuse Sunak of being “absolutely tone deaf” to the cost of living crisis. Sunak retorted that “these prepared lines” weren’t working any more, which is true, but actually the lines have never worked all that well, especially as Starmer reaches the end of his six questions, when the divergence between his script, and the answers or non-answers given by the PM, becomes too obvious.
Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, asked if he could note that the Prime Minister prefers, unlike some of his opponents, to take long-term decisions which will lead to “more jobs, better education and a shared prosperity”.
This ludicrously soft question produced laughter, in which Sunak joined before replying: “I thank my Honourable Friend for his kind words.”
Well-mannered, unafraid, and arousing no pangs of envy in his contemporaries: here is a Prime Minister who in some ways recalls Sir Alec Douglas-Home, loser by only four seats of the 1964 general election.