Angela Rayner went into PMQs with much expected of her, at least from her own side. Although Sir Keir Starmer has mostly dominated in his exchanges with Boris Johnson, he has been judicious in what he has said, leading to mutterings that Labour needs to be more aggressive and hard-hitting, a tone Rayner was always likely to be more comfortable adopting. Johnson cannot patronise her as a north London lawyer. And many observers think he is uncomfortable facing women at the dispatch box (an assessment accepted so widely that Emily Thornberry made it central to her leadership campaign).
In the event Rayner was refreshingly different, and perfectly creditable, but she did not deliver the drubbing may have been hoping for and Johnson ended the session effectively unscathed. It was not a heroic performance by the PM, and the encounter was more or less a draw, but given how things have been going for him recently at the dispatch box, that counts as a good result.
Like most events on TV that attract strong feelings among viewers, PMQs is harder than it looks, and experience matters, and that probably explains why Rayner did not deliver a knock-out. Her opening line about someone called Keir who could not go go work was lovely but it was a lead-in to a gotcha question (how much do care workers earn?), and to be effective those have to be relatively quick; her spiel went on for too long, allowing Johnson to use up most of his reply engaging with her other points before you noticed that he had not answered the question.
She caught him out with the Care England chief executive’s quote, but at that point you wanted to hear Johnson pressed on why his understanding of what was happening did not square with reality. She later accused Johnson of saying the testing crisis was all the public’s fault when any fair-minded observer would have concluded that that was not he was saying. (There’s a difference between attributing cause and attributing blame.) And although it was interesting to hear the rule of six grouse shooting exemption raised, Rayner’s question should have been reframed. She asked why it was the government’s top priority, but most people will realise it wasn’t. The question is why shooting should have qualified for any exemption at all.
There possibly is some mileage in a class attack on Johnson and his cabinet, but the Red Wall voters did not seem too bothered about his Eton pedigree at the last election and Rayner did not really pull it off this afternoon. But what was striking, though, was having someone who has worked a care worker at the dispatch box up against the PM. There is potential in that, worth exploiting more next time she’s here.
Johnson was better than he has been in recent weeks partly because he dropped his ludicrous attempt to brand Labour as a party of IRA-loving remainers and towards the end he actually seemed relieved by how it had went. He concluded with his familiar tribute to the common sense of the British people, and how that was how coronavirus was going to be defeated. It was half-persuasive the first time he tried it but less so now because last week Johnson explicitly said at his press conference last week that government could not just trust people to “take responsibility for their own health” because they did not understand the risks. He is still struggling to reconcile his innate libertarianism with sensible public health policy.