Voices: A deadly dull first PMQs with wooden Truss – and the equally stale Starmer

·4-min read

Hurrah for boring. Three cheers for boring. My god we’ve been made to wait for it, but boring, as Smash Hits magazine used to say, is back Back BACK!

Liz Truss’s first Prime Minister’s Questions passed in exactly the same way as her statement outside Downing Street. These, nominally, are historic moments, and for those of us who’ll be asked by our grandchildren whether we were there, the reply will be the same: “I really can’t remember.”

As these words leave my fingers Liz Truss’s first PMQs has been over for four minutes and I’m already not entirely certain if I could tell you whether or not I was there.

But that is no bad thing. Boring questions and boring answers are what the country is crying out for in these very unboring times. Government by flowery metaphor but absolutely no action became very passe very quickly indeed, and if we are now done with it then everyone’s a winner.

The Tory MPs, for their part, were bored before it even began. The cheers that greeted Truss’s arrival were less loud than Boris Johnson used to get at the height of the Partygate scandal, when the only reason he was coming to the House of Commons in the first place was to apologise, yet again, for not knowing about the existence of parties he had personally attended.

That might be something to worry about, but not right now. Besides, boring is interesting. There’s only one question anyone cares about and that’s what’s going to be done about the nation’s terrifying energy bills.

What we seem to already know is that Liz Truss is going to intervene, and cap people’s energy bills at way below the market rate, and then make up the £150bn shortfall by paying it directly to the energy companies out of general taxation.

Keir Starmer asked her if she was ruling out a windfall tax, if she was definitely going to make normal taxpayers cover the huge £170bn profits (Treasury estimate) of the energy companies, and the answer she gave was, in effect “yes”.

And this is not boring. Who pays who for soaring gas prices is likely to be the biggest political question of the next two years. If you cap bills at £2,000, then pay the real price of £8,000 out of general taxation, then you make it more progressive, as general taxation is more progressive than everyone paying the same, regardless of need.

But who are you paying the money to? The energy companies and their shareholders; the elderly rich, generally speaking. So it is, yet again, another massive transferral of wealth from the working, struggling young and the not yet born, to absurdly loaded retirees, over one in five of whom is classified as a millionaire.

And yes, the energy companies will make obscene profits but, to take but one example, last year when the oil price briefly went negative, and people were actually paid to store oil, they made equally obscene losses, so should the government seize the massive profits but expect them to weather the massive losses themselves?

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This is what Keir Starmer and Liz Truss will be arguing about for the foreseeable, both of them in their studious, boring, wooden way. Both of them will claim to be on the side of fairness. Liz Truss will no doubt again tell Keir Starmer, as she did today, that she’s “not surprised by another Labour leader, wanting to put up taxes”.

And the Tories will cheer and hope that people won’t notice that the tax rise in question is one on energy company profits, which most people think are obscene.

And she will no doubt tell him, again, that he “doesn’t understand aspiration”, when the version of aspiration she is defending is one where her sacred people, the ones she claims to be on the side of, the ones who “work hard” to hand their taxes over to people who have a hell of a lot more than them.

So who will win that argument? It will be whoever is the most articulate, between Liz Truss and Keir Starmer. Who can imbue this rather boring stuff with feelings that people connect with? Who can paint the most vivid picture of their version of fairness? On this evidence, it will be a close contest, because both of them seem no more than passably good at this stuff. But one of them will have to win.