For dedicated followers of Westminster there are few sights more joyous than a politician, expert or adviser burning out in front of a Select Committee. It is a niche pleasure, certainly, but one that makes the hours spent watching anodyne Q&A sessions worthwhile.
This week Dominic Cummings – campaign director for Vote Leave and, according to one former colleague, the “Tory Che Guevara” – went in front of the Treasury Select Committee. He started in brusque fashion. “I’ve got another meeting at four, so I’ll have to be out of here before that,” Cumming’s said, staring into the middle distance. “I don’t think you’ve got the hang of these proceedings” chair Andrew Tyrie responded dryly. “We ask the questions and you stay and answer them.”
Popcorn at the ready…
For the next three hours the stern Tyrie and co tried their best to pin Cummings and the ‘facts’ used by Vote Leave down with limited success. In the chair’s own words, he played “fast and loose” with his answers and his claims of a financial bonanza in the wake of Brexit “sounds like Aladdin's Cave.”
Throughout the process Cummings veered between disinterested and openly hostile. Having forgotten his cufflinks his shirt sleeves flapped limply as he spoke, his tie hung loose and his body slumped lazily. Rachel Reeves, one of the Commons’ sharpest minds, looked incredulous as he flippantly suggested it was “hard to know the difference” between bribery and lobbying in Brussels. She would later suggest that his attitude and answers had been “astonishing.”
The Leave campaign is increasingly dogged by criticism that they have failed to articulate what Britain would look like after Brexit. Cumming’s abject inability to set out his case was damning even for those of us who could, charitably, be described as ‘soft-Eurosceptics’. His suggestion that neither the Foreign Office nor any other Whitehall department is competent enough to negotiate leaving the EU merely poured oil on concerns that departing would be a drawn-out, messy and costly process.
Elsewhere, another Eurosceptic (allegedly) famed for his disheveled appearance had a rather better afternoon. Focusing rightly on the subject of forced academisation, Jeremy Corbyn put in perhaps his best performance at PMQs, rightly drawing on concerns from Tory backbenchers that the move was unnecessary and costly. The PM joked that while Labour MPs were in despair he was “lovin’ it”, but drew few laughs.
Cameron’s poor performance was underlined by a revision to Flashman mode, referring to Sadiq Khan’s alleged-links to Islamic extremists. An underhand tactic to shine a light on them? Perhaps. However, their relevance is questionable and serve to illustrate the weaknesses of Zac Goldsmith’s campaign. Dog whistle heavy, energy light and, according to the polls, unlikely to succeed.
Finally, Her Majesty the Queen turned 90 this week. Although criticised by several MPs for supporting the Labour NEC’s decision to bar McDonalds from conference, Jeremy Corbyn finished the week on a high with a fine address peppered with genuine humour and references to his constituency. Having undertaken something of a rapprochement with the Royals, one wonders whether he may now be able to do something similar with his many critics in the PLP.