HENRY DEEDES watches new Deputy PM battle Starmer's lieutenant

Dowden gave Labour’s Rayner a decent – not brilliant – run for her money: HENRY DEEDES watches the new Deputy PM go head to head with Starmer’s lieutenant

    HISTORY has a habit of throwing up shock victories for the underdog. Who can forget when James ‘Buster’ Douglas put Mike Tyson flat on his backside that fateful night in Tokyo? Or when Fife’s finest, Jocky Wilson, demolished John ‘Stoneface’ Lowe on the way to his first world darts championship in 1982.

    (Jocky used to neck five pints before a match to steady his nerves. A remarkable athlete.)

    Though today’s PMQs wasn’t quite the story of David and Goliath, it was still a turn-up for the books. In his debut at PMQs, the unfancied Oliver Dowden managed to get the better of Angela Rayner.

    As debaters go, Ange has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And Olive – as he is affectionately known by his Downing Street colleagues – has always come across as such a wet piece of haddock that many expected one swing of Rayner’s clodhoppers to leave him smeared him against the chamber wall. Minnie the Minx duffs up Walter the Softy.

    Instead, Mr Dowden surprised everyone with a decent performance. Not brilliant, mind. His voice is too drippy and his comic timing is clunkier than a clapped-out Austin Montego. But decent.

    Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden speaks on behalf of Rishi Sunak during the weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions

    Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner quizzes Mr Dowden

    Rayner, meanwhile, appeared to have developed a nasty case of Starmer-itis, veering off on bizarre tangents which left MPs scratching their heads in bewilderment. She has certainly enjoyed better days at the dispatch box.

    Mr Dowden was in harness because the Prime Minister is visiting Japan on a G7 beano, which was probably a good thing — Sunak v Starmer bouts have become awfully samey lately.

    As the deputy PM strode into the chamber bang on midday, his puffed-out tummy made his jacket buttons squeak for mercy.

    Ms Rayner was already seated, examining her opponent the way a student eyes up a foaming tankard of snakebite. She looked ready to wolf him down all in one go.

    Early exchanges between the pair were refreshingly jovial. That’s the thing about Rayner – for the all the ‘Tory scum’ baiting, her snarl is far worse than her snap.

    She welcomed her new jousting partner (‘the third I’ve faced in three years!’) and expressed relief that the PM had ‘finally got a working-class friend.’

    Director’s note: Despite his posh prefect manner, Dowden was educated at a lowly comprehensive.

    Little Olive grinned. Rayner’s opening salvo had allowed him to use his own pre-baked gag about how he’d expected to come face-to-face with Sir Keir Starmer’s ‘preferred’ choice for deputy leader. ‘I’m surprised that the Lib Dem leader isn’t taking questions today,’ he joked.

    ‘In his debut at PMQs, the unfancied Oliver Dowden managed to get the better of Angela Rayner’

    Tory MPs laughed. To give her due, so did Rayner. I think she was relieved he didn’t say Rachel Reeves.

    Rayner accused the Tories of being in disarray, Dowden made a jibe about Ange’s rocky relationship with Starmer. ‘It’s all lovey-dovey on the surface, they turn it on for the cameras, but as soon as they’re off, it’s a different story,’ he laughed.

    ‘They’re at each other’s throats – they are the Phil and Holly of British politics!’ Good line. Let’s hope the producers on This Morning give it the repeat airing it deserves tomorrow.

    It was then Rayner began to stray badly off-piste. I’m never quite sure how this happens at PMQs. Do aides not warn during rehearsals how much they’re meandering?

    She zig-zagged about on NHS waiting times which prompted the Conservative benches to start heckling.

    Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle demanded MPs ‘shuddoop’ and listen to the question. ‘What question?!’ they yelled incredulously.

    Eventually, Rayner came up with a mangled query on child poverty to which Dowden replied: ‘This comprehensive boy is not going to take any lectures on working people.’

    Funny, I recall Michael Howard used an almost identical line when he came up against public school-educated Tony Blair in the Commons.

    Actually, Dowden most likely wrote it for him — he’s helped five of the past Tory leaders prepare for PMQs.

    The new deputy PM is obviously decent at writing the gags. But on today’s showing one can see why the delivery has been left to someone else.

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