Angela Rayner is incredibly popular in the Labour Party. She was the Corbynista that the Blairites liked throughout the last leadership regime, giving her wide appeal. She was well rewarded by gliding into the role of Deputy Leader. In fact, most people were at least slightly surprised she wasn’t running for leader – some imploring her to swap places with her flatmate Rebecca Long Bailey.
According to influential polling and focus group guru Deborah Mattinson, she is also popular in the country, with undecided voters responding very favourably to her in focus groups held in the run up to the election. Her popularity wasn’t enough to change that outcome for Labour, but it is definitely an asset for the ‘under new management’ Labour Party.
Today, she found an new and surprising fan in the shape of the Prime Minister. His usually pugilistic approach to PMQs was largely missing from Rayner’s first outing (covering for a self-isolating Keir Starmer). I genuinely lost count of the number of times he used the phrase “She’s absolutely right” during his answers.
Of course, he still did the usual PMQs trick of answering the questions he wished he’d heard rather than those he’s been asked. But he and his advisors had clearly decided that the optics of attacking Rayner would be poor.
Angela Rayner is working class and a woman – two things the PM is decidedly not – and the former in particular plays well into the strait-jacket Labour want to fit the PM into: that of the aloof, out-of-touch toff. This normally doesn’t really concern Johnson, for whom this kind of attack usually bounces off.
Perhaps it was because she is a woman that Johnson decided to play it chivalrous. More likely it was because attacking a working class woman with experience of working in care homes just wouldn’t be a good look when she was pursuing a line of questioning over government failures that chimes with wider public perceptions.
Overall, Johnson put in a lacklustre performance while Rayner delivered competently but without fireworks. It was only in the final exchange that she delivered a class-based attack on the government over prioritising grouse shooting over family gatherings. And it was only in his final answer that Johnson returned to his familiar theme of complaining about the opposition’s “carping”.
There was probably never going to be the kind of demolishing of the Prime Minister that we saw from Ed Miliband earlier this week. But both Labour and the Tories can feel reasonably happy with what looked to me largely like a score draw. Rayner got off a couple of good gags – the one about the next time a man displaying symptoms travels from London to Durham it will be to get a test – was particularly well done. Overall, Angela has taken a leaf from the leader’s book and proved that she can do cool and clear competence.
But Johnson – already having a bad week from his backbenchers, peers, the Labour front bench and most importantly his lack of grip on the ongoing crisis – will be pleased not to have been eviscerated. However, while PMQs doesn’t really matter much in the broad scope of things. It does set a tone for Parliament, cheering or muting the backbenches. I’m not at all sure that after the deterioration of Johnson’s relationship with his parliamentary party this performance will be enough to turn things around. Not being metaphorically skinned alive is – after all – quite a low bar.
Emma Burnell is a freelance journalist, Labour member and director of the Political Human consultancy