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UK Politics

Donald Macintyre’s Sketch: Rachel Reeves is riveting – compared with IDS that is

Esther McVey all  but ran to the dispatch box, like a schoolgirl  late for class

There was nothing dull about her scarlet jacket, a flash of colour reminding us that the curtain had come down on “Two bald men”, the long-running Liam Byrne/Iain Duncan Smith show.

Fortunately, since Rachel Reeves’ first question as shadow Work and Pensions minister was a long time coming, the tension was unbearable. Would it be such a belter that MPs across the chamber would gasp in amazement and BBC Newsnight editor Ian Katz would be forced to commit public harakiri in remorse at his notorious judgement that Ms Reeves was “boring, snoring”?

Katz lives on. The question, on the spectacular computer cock-ups afflicting Universal Credit, was competent, if slightly gabbled. But gasps were there none. She suggested he “turn down the volume” – this a somewhat clunky reference to IDS’s self-imposed “Quiet Man” nickname as party leader – “on off-the-record briefings against your own permanent secretary and start taking responsibility…”

But it was riveting compared with the Duncan Smith answer, which was mainly to repeat that Universal Credit would “roll out successfully on time and in budget”, a ritual incantation based on the doubtful principle that the more you say it, the likelier it is to come true. In fact, the scene-stealer was the relentlessly effervescent and newly promoted Employment minister, Esther McVey.

Ms McVey was so excited answering questions on her new brief that she all but ran to the dispatch box at one point, scrambling open her official folder like a schoolgirl late for class. She has a disconcerting habit of over-punctuation – saying the Work Programme has “significantly. Improved. Under. My predecessor” – or even between syllables, as in a Labour MP who does not really “Und.Er.Stand” Remploy.

Answering one of many questions about victims of the bedroom tax, she insisted: “We are supporting them as best we can with discretionary housing payments.” “As best we can” is a favourite – and less than wholly reassuring – McVey catchphrase.

But Ms Reeves is a one-time under-14 chess champion, so she can think more than one move ahead. Her question won’t look so boring if Duncan Smith fails to “roll out” Universal Credit on time.