Rishi Sunak’s Liaison Committee performance offers Boycott-esque alternative to Boris-ball
The Prime Minister will have been delighted with Steve Brine’s observation, at Wednesday’s Liaison Committee, that he is “gaining a reputation as a problem solver”.
(It is perhaps worth pointing out that Mr Brine, the Tory MP for Winchester and former health minister, has been “ready for Rishi” for longer than most, tweeting gushingly after Mr Sunak’s interview with Andrew Neil during last summer’s leadership race: “That is how to be across the detail and be the grown-up in the room.”)
But to be fair to the sometimes Book at Bedtime-ish premier, he did appear to be wearing his big boy pants as he faced a grilling by MPs from all parties on what his Government has been up to since he entered Downing Street on October 25 2022.
Much has been said and written about the contrast between the Prime Minister and the man committee member Stephen Crabbe could only bring himself to describe as “his predecessor but one”.
When Boris Johnson used to go into bat before the committee, he tended to take a hit out or get out approach, curve balls flying left, right and centre. Mr Sunak proved positively Boycott-esque by comparison, performing a number of defensive blocks that barely troubled the fielders and left him comfortably in the crease for the entire innings.
“InvisRishi” had come out to play, at last, but anyone expecting the spirit of Ben Stokes or the flair of Freddie Flintoff may have left the ground questioning the cost of the debenture. If last week’s Privileges Committee was box office, this was decidedly off-Broadway.
Yet as he took on the Boothroyd Room with the kind of precision for which the formidable former Commons Speaker was renowned, his Conservative colleagues will surely have revelled in the boringness of it all. “Is childcare in complete disarray?” asked Labour’s Catherine McKinnell. “No, I don’t think it is”, Mr Sunak calmly replied. “Is there a blank check from the Treasury to stop the boats?” asked Labour’s Diana Johnson. “Of course not,” the Prime Minister responded with the coolness of a former chancellor with a gimlet eye on the bottom line. Even the SNP’s Angus MacNeil struggled to land a blow when questioning the size of Britain’s gargantuan deficit. “It’s very rare for countries to run budget surpluses,” the former investment banker commented coolly.
None of it would be winning any Olivier Awards but the performance will have received five star reviews from backbenchers, whose political careers depend on the curtain being brought down on the Tory psychodrama.
Backstage, MPs have been told in no uncertain terms that they do not have a hope in hell of winning in 2024 unless they take a more Sunakian approach.
Advised by Isaac Levido, the political strategist behind 2019’s successful election campaign, to “work day and night” to win back voters in constituencies from the blue to the Red Wall, the party is facing a stark choice: unite or die.
Which perhaps explains why even veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash could not bring himself to trash a Brexit deal he clearly despises, politely telling the Prime Minister: “I’m not very keen on the Windsor Framework.” As committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin later commented: “For the most part, everyone has been extremely well behaved.”
As a former head boy, there is undoubtedly something slightly nerdish about Mr Sunak compared to charismatic class clown Mr Johnson. But by keeping his head down and doing his homework, the Prime Minister does seem to be slowly improving the Conservatives’ grades.
After helping to fell Nicola Sturgeon with his opposition to the Gender Recognition (Reform) Bill, signing the Aukus submarine pact with Australia and the US, and bringing in new legislation to “stop the boats” – one poll has narrowed Labour’s lead to just 10 points.
Politicos keep asking if it is 1992 or 1997 but the 1981 Ashes might be a better reference point. One-nil down after two Tests, cricket fans will remember that England won the next three to retain the urn as 3–1 victors.
Ian Botham was the player of the series with 399 runs and 34 wickets but England could not have won it without Boycott hitting 392. As well as being a perfect pairing of Beefy’s Bazball and Thatch’s slow and steady hard graft – it was an all round team effort.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere for a party on a decidedly sticky wicket.