With all attention focused on Rishi Sunak’s statement, Boris Johnson can feel lucky nobody noticed his lame attempt to give Keir Starmer a new nickname
For once, PMQs wasn’t the star attraction in the House of Commons. With chancellor Rishi Sunak taking to the despatch box to unveil his latest tranche of measures to prevent the UK collapsing like a clown’s car in the wake of Covid-19, Boris Johnson’s weekly grilling was merely the antipasto.
In a way, this was good for Boris Johnson, whose attempt to christen Keir Starmer with a new nickname looking like the least successful rebranding since Royal Mail became Consignia. But we’ll come to that.
Keir Starmer led on the obvious subject on which to put the screws on the PM. (At some point, hopefully soon, the fact of the leader of the opposition choosing the self-evident issue will cease to be a novelty.) During a visit on Monday, Johnson said coronavirus had highlighted issues with the care sector, saying: ‘We discovered too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have.’ And since then a succession of shame-averse ministers have been wheeled out to claim that wasn’t what he said despite (a) that was what he said and (b) he said it to an actual camera which, since the 1920s, have captured sound as well as pictures.
The claim, said Starmer, ‘has caused huge offence to frontline care workers. It has now been 48 hours. Will the prime minister apologise to care workers?’.
And Johnson, solemnly and from the heart, apologised. Only joking! He claimed the thing that he said, which seemed on the face of it ambiguous, was absolutely not what he said. ‘The last thing I wanted to do is to blame care workers for what has happened or for any of them to think that I was blaming them because they’ve worked hard, incredibly hard, throughout this crisis, looking after some of the most vulnerable people in our country and doing an outstanding job,’ he said. ‘And when it comes to taking blame, I take full responsibility for what has happened’.
This was, said Starmer not inaccurately, ‘not an apology and it just won’t wash’, but Johnson declined a second opportunity to say the hardest word.
‘He keeps saying that I blamed or try to blame care workers and that is simply not the case,’ said Johnson.
‘The reality is that we now know things about the way coronavirus is passed from person to person without symptoms that we just didn’t know. Perhaps Captain Hindsight would like to tell us whether he knew that it was being transmitted asymptomatically.’
Yes, Captain Hindsight. This, after several months of Starmer being in office, is the killer soubriquet that genius Dominic Cummings has come up with – dubbing him like a short-lived 1970s Hanna-Barbera character.
Do we think it will catch on? No, and not least because it didn’t require hindsight to see it was being transmitted asymptomatically – not least because as early as January, when Johnson was on a mysterious Caribbean holiday, SAGE was only saying evidence was ‘limited’ but early evidence was showing ‘some’ was occurring.
Starmer turned to reports this morning Johnson’s government ‘is to remove free hospital parking for NHS workers in England’. He said: ‘We owe our NHS workers so much. We all clap for them, we should be rewarding them, not making it more expensive to go to work. The prime minister must know this is wrong, will he reconsider and rule it out?.’
Johnson was tin-eared. ‘May I suggest he takes his latest bandwagon and parks it free somewhere else,’ he told Starmer, in a particularly tin-eared manner. Not his finest hour – he must be glad to have been saved by the chancellor he is almost certainly going to sack as soon as he becomes a threat.
There was one positive for the PM – the return, after a few weeks away, of the planted questions from obsequious backbenchers. Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) asked for a new hospital for Doncaster, allowing Johnson to crow once more about the 40 new hospitals he is going to find an excuse for not having built in 2024. Sir Geoffrey Clinton-Brown, an old duffer who represents the Cotswolds, wasted 10 seconds of his precious time on Earth to ask the PM to ‘continue to build on his excellent package of announcements’ on youth employment.
But the winner was Paul Holmes (Eastleigh), who claimed that his constituents were concerned by shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds telling Andrew Marr on Sunday that she might possibly consider some sort of wealth tax to tackle the after-effects of Covid-19 if Labour come to office in the next election. Are they, Mr Holmes? Emails or it never happened.
Finally, on a lighter note, has anybody noticed speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s increasingly weird habit of introducing those participating via Zoom in the manner of a naff 1980s game show host? ‘From the shadows of Lichfield Cathedral!’, he yelled as he introduced the absurdly-coiffured Tory Michael Fabricant who, rather than being in anything’s shadow, was in his house. Is he concerned Dead Ringers haven’t started doing him yet?