Boris Johnson faced Keir Starmer for the first time at prime minister’s questions today and the difficulty level went up several notches
If and when football returns it will be without a crowd and, if the evidence of Paris Saint-German v Borussia Dortmund – one of the last Champions League games to be staged before the lockdown and played behind closed doors – is anything to go by, it will be weird. Players feed off the crowd as much as the other way around.
So it is with the funereal atmosphere in the House of Commons for prime minister’s questions now. This didn’t matter quite so much in the last couple of weeks as Dominic Raab and Kair Starmer circled each other in a duel of legal language. But it does matter for Boris Johnson, whose masking of his loose grasp of facts with irreverence rather depends on the wall of sound from his sycophantic backbenchers carrying him through.
And, again, this wouldn’t matter so much were he facing Jeremy Corbyn, the Banquo’s ghost who, for the first time since stepping down as Labour leader, didn’t appear to have made this week’s PMQs. But today Johnson faced Keir Starmer for the first time and, if he didn’t know it already, this is an altogether different opposition leader – if it was a video game, the difficulty setting had been cranked up several levels.
As new figures showed the UK’s death rate had overtaken Italy for the most deaths in Europe, Starmer reminded the PM it came days after he had bizarrely claimed the UK’s response had been an ‘apparent success’.
‘When the prime minister returned to work a week ago Monday he said that many people were looking at the apparent success of the government’s approach,’ said Starmer in measured tones.
‘But yesterday we learnt, tragically, that 29,427 in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That’s now the highest number in Europe. It’s the second highest in the world. That’s not success or apparent success.
‘So can the prime minister tell us how on earth did it come to this?’
Johnson replied that ‘at this stage I don’t think international comparisons and the data is yet there to draw all the conclusions that we want.’
Starmer said Johnson’s comments ‘did not hold water’. Holding up a copy of a slide of global death counts shown at the daily Downing Street press briefings, he said: ‘Mr Speaker, the argument that international comparisons can’t really be made when the government has been using slides like this for weeks just does not hold water.’
He added: ‘I’m afraid that many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing, and slow on the supply of protective equipment.’ Look at that! Actual, functioning, prepared opposition!
Johnson flapped and waffled, looking around the green benches for the new intake of young Turks, roaring their support for the PM and anything he touched. But they weren’t there. ‘I believe there will of course be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions,’ he offered. There will, and it will not be pretty.
Elsewhere, Theresa Villiers, the former Tory cabinet minister, used a question on Tube travel to tee up Johnson for another pop at his successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan. Perhaps still exhausted from his own battle with Covid-19, Johnson only took a very half-hearted shot.
Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader, called for more co-working with the devolved administrations, mainly notable for his having exchanged the two footballs he had used as a backdrop the past couple of weeks for a tartan curtain.
Still, at least it wasn’t contentious. Justin Madders (Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston) appeared via Zoom in front of a 1920s Labour poster, and got a ticking-off from the speaker for his troubles. Members must make sure they ‘don’t have political slogans behind them when they are speaking,’ said Lindsay Hoyle.
And non-sequitur of the day went to Mike Amesbury (Labour, Weaver Vale), who greeted Johnson’s return by welcoming ‘him back to this place on my birthday’. Oddly, Wikipedia records Amesbury’s birthday as tomorrow. But then we’re all guilty of losing track of what day it is at the moment.