With a colleague laid low with coronavirus, around 600 other MPs thought it was a good idea to crowd into a chamber with room for about half of them and ask some pointless questions
In no other occupation would this happen. If an Asda worker in Stockport was laid low with coronavirus, the company’s reaction would not be to invite all its managers to London for a meeting in a room the size of a tennis court in which they could quiz the chief executive on whether he’d agree with them that he was doing a terrific job, purely so they could upload the video to Facebook. But this is politics, and so they did.
True, this was Budget Day, the first since October 2018 when Philip Hammond – remember him! – was in the job, and MPs wanted a seat. But the looming Budget meant that this PMQs was very much a case of before the Lord Mayor’s show, an underwhelming undercard much like Cast opening for Oasis at Knebworth.
And MPs could be relied upon to live down to it. Jeremy Corbyn, due either to a commitment to maintaining a cross-party consensus or incompetence (you choose), chose to largely avoid the global coronavirus for a scattergun approach of women-focused topics following from last weekend’s International Women’s Day. Very important topics all, but such a move would have fitted better last week and, besides, Rebecca Long-Bailey did a similar thing during a guest appearance last June, but better.
It did bring one rare moment of light, though. Corbyn accused Boris Johnson of supporting ‘the absolutely horrendous rape clause in the child tax credit rules’, asking: ‘Why does he think it’s right that 200 mothers have to prove to the government their child was conceived as a result of being raped so they can keep their child tax credits?’
Johnson, in his reply, said: ‘On his point about the recipients of benefit, he draws attention to an injustice and we will do everything we can to rectify it.’ Corbyn, and much of the House, looked temporarily floored by the straight answer.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford went on sickness pay, at one point quizzing Johnson specifically on rates in Ireland (he ducked it) but this allowed the PM to defer to Rishi Sunak’s debut Budget. It was left to his SNP colleague Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) to do the fiery stuff, asking if Johnson could explain ‘why he is so singularly unpopular in Scotland’.
‘He’s lost half his Scottish MPs, support for independence is at an all-time high – is it because he thinks he can say no to a nation or is it because the blustering buffoonery just jars with the Scottish people?’.
The PM preferred to dwell on the SNP’s own performance in government at Holyrood and its preoccupation with constitutional matters. ‘Stick to the day job,’ bellowed the man who spent precisely as much time visiting flood victims as hosting auctions for high-end donors with the man from the Gocompare adverts.
Elsewhere, to coin a phrase, nothing had changed. Labour’s Naz Shah (Bradford West) tested the speaker’s patience with a lengthy question-cum-speech on Islamophobia in the Tory party, urging Johnson to censure it without reference to Labour’s antisemitism crisis. He couldn’t.
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Jane Hunt (Conservative, Loughborough) wasn’t going to let a potential global pandemic from getting her four pars in the Echo, asking the First Lord of the Treasury to congratulate ‘the mighty Loughborough swim team’ for five medals they won at a heat last month. He obliged.
And finally, there was tough competition for Obsequious Tory Backbench Question of the Week. Strong competition from Mike Wood (Dudley South), but the gong goes to Jack Brereton, a baby-faced Tory backbencher most notable for misspelling Brexit on a campaign poster and who once took the award under Theresa May.
The Stoke-on-Trent South MP said: ‘Would my Right Honourable Friend agree with me that this Budget today is a historic moment to level up our economy to ensure everyone has the opportunity to succeed, especially in Stoke-on-Trent?’.
The prime minister agreed, muttered some guff about Stoke-on-Trent being ‘the crucible in which the future of this country is going to be forged’ and it suddenly became clear why so many MPs had packed into this potential petri dish – they fancy a couple of weeks isolated from this rubbish as much as anyone.