PMQs Review: The one with the dead-eyed shark

PUBLISHED: 14:22 02 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:22 02 October 2019

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab deputising at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons (Pic: Parliament)

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab deputising at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons (Pic: Parliament)

Parliament

With Boris Johnson in Manchester, Dominic Raab gave a glimpse into an alternate reality in which he won the Tory leadership race

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With Boris Johnson in Manchester, thus keeping his number of PMQs appearances stuck on one, the deputies stood in today, meaning he was represented by foreign secretary and deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab.

Yes, you'd forgotten Dominic Raab was deputy prime minister and, quite possibly, forgotten Dominic Raab entirely, hadn't you? Yet here he was, a dead-eyed shark in a suit, a man notable for (1) admitting as Brexit secretary he "hadn't quite understood" how reliant UK trade in goods is on the Dover-Calais crossing and (2) quitting government in protest at a deal he himself had negotiated, is now the second-in-command at the nation's tiller.

Opposite, Jeremy Corbyn's habit of rotating his deputies as if it had all the constitutional significance of filling in for Holly and Phil in the summer continues. With Emily Thornberry now persona non grata and Rebecca Long-Bailey apparently shelved, in came Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary herself now seemingly dislodged as the Absolute Boy's favourite media defender by Barry Gardiner. Raab v Abbot: truly the greatest tussle between public intellectuals since V S Naipaul and Paul Theroux buried the hatchet.

Early portents weren't good: Abbot rose to pay tribute to Dina Asher-Smith, the British sprinter who took silver at the World Athletic Championships in Qatar, an event attended by even fewer than today's PMQs (the gaps were yawning, with ambitious Tories in Manchester and all but one Lib Dem with something better to do). Raab then stood to respond, and Abbott sat down. Only problem: she hadn't actually asked a question yet. "I think that was a preface to a question," said speaker John Bercow.

When she got going, Abbott appeared to take the scattergun approach favoured by her leader - the abuse aimed at MPs, abortion rights in Northern Ireland, the so-called "rape clause" connected to tax credits and the plight of workers at Thomas Cook - without follow-ups. But to her credit, there was an over-riding narrative here: all were examples of the government's "cruel" treatment of women.

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"Whether it's women members in this House, women claiming benefits, women's reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, and the failure to support women workers at Thomas Cook, isn't this a government letting women down?," she asked. Raab demurred. "On this side of the House we're proud to be on our second female prime minister," he said, to some ironic laughter given his own less-than-clean hands in dispatching Johnson's predecessor.

Abbott pounced. "I can just say gently to him that I was a member of this House when Tory MPs defenestrated the then-female prime minister Mrs Thatcher, and I've been a member of this House when Tory MPs worked their will to the immediate female prime minister," she said. "It seems to me that Tory Members of Parliament may on occasion make women their leaders but they need to learn how to treat them less cruelly."

It was the culmination of a bout in which Raab adopted his boss' favoured approach of answering not the question he'd been asked but the one he wished he had, and one in which he came off second-best. The troops behind Abbott were cheered; Raab looked to be in his position because Johnson doesn't consider him a threat.

Elsewhere there was a treat for fans of 90s nostalgia as Ken Clarke popped up to reveal John Major had phoned him before PMQs to "give vent to his indignation", which he "fully shared", that a "major policy announcement of historic significance on our last offer apparently to the EU of a withdrawal agreement" was being made not to the Commons, and not after discussion in the cabinet, but in a speech at the Conservative Party conference.

Raab attempted to be polite, noting that "he and I have always had slightly nuanced but differing views on the EU", which is a bit like saying that Sylvester and Tweetie Pie have slightly nuanced but differing views on the feline consumption of canaries.

And another Remain hero, former Tory attorney general Dominic Grieve rose to ask "how is it that the government is allowing special advisers at Number 10 Downing Street speaking on behalf of the Government to tell outright lies? On Saturday, such a special adviser, who I believe is Mr Dominic Cummings, told the Mail on Sunday that a number of honourable members were in receipt of foreign funding in order to draft what is known as the Benn Act. Something which, in itself, is totally untrue."

Raab, coming across as Frank Underwood if House of Cards had been made by ITV and they could only afford Paul Bettany, said: "In relation to the legislation which we have rightly dubbed the surrender act, it is right that that gets the kind of scrutiny that a government would get." Ugh.

And so came to an end a session which, if nothing else, was a reminder that Boris Johnson's team does not bat very far down the tail. And you are safe, for the time being, to forget once again about the existence of Dominic Raab.

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