With new dad Boris Johnson away again, Dominic Raab once again deputised at this week’s semi-virtual prime minister’s questions
Boris Johnson was missing from this week’s PMQs, his fiancée Carrie Symonds having given birth to a baby boy this morning. Congratulations to both, but – and I’m just saying here – if my father managed to attend Crewe Alexandra v Doncaster Rovers on the day of my birth, is it not too much to ask the prime minister to subject himself to scrutiny amidst the greatest crisis since the Second World War? Crewe lost 2-1, by the way.
Never mind. His absence meant that Dominic Raab – who has aged 10 years in the past month and must cheer the failure of his own long-shot bid for the party leadership every day – was back deputising. Raab was ‘sure the whole House will want to join with me in sending congratulations and our very best wishes to them’.
Then, in a cranking handbrake turn in tone which will be reflected in tomorrow’s fawning front pages, he added that: ‘The whole House will also want to join me in paying tribute to the 85 NHS workers and the 23 social care workers who have very sadly died from coronavirus.’ It’s like a particularly grim spin on Malcolm’s quote to David Brent in The Office, announcing redundancies and his own promotion: ‘That’s bad news and irrelevant news.’
Keir Starmer also sent his warm congratulations to Johnson and Symonds. Given the opprobrium heaped upon him from Corbynistas on Twitter last week for the temerity of wishing the Queen a happy birthday, one can only #PrayForKeirsMentions.
Starmer employed the forensic approached seen last week again, pressing Raab on testing, personal protective equipment and easing lockdown measures, all the while re-emphasising Labour’s support for the measures in place.
‘Now I recognise the challenge the government faces on this, I recognise that getting the right piece of equipment to the right place every time is very difficult, but lives do depend on it,’ said Starmer.
‘And it is 10 weeks since the health secretary declared that there was a serious and imminent threat to life. You’d hope that by now, things would be getting better, not worse.
‘So can I ask the first secretary, what is going on and how soon can it be fixed?’
Raab conceded Starmer was ‘right’ that there were ‘challenges on the front line’.
‘I feel animated, inspired to do even better, but he needs to recognise on PPE that there is a global supply shortage and we’re doing absolutely everything we can to make sure that those on the front line get the equipment that they need,’ said Raab, while looking utterly deflated.
At one point, Starmer explained the way he worked: ‘I’ve been trying to stick to the data and the evidence rather than just come up with an opinion.’ A few rows back, Jeremy Corbyn – still flouting government advice for the over-70s to stay at home – furrowed his brow at such a quixotic approach to PMQs.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, still sat in front of his footballs, used his two questions to call on the government to extend the Brexit transition period, the sort of talk which gets the vein on Raab’s head bulging even more so than usual.
‘Refusing to admit the inevitability of an extension isn’t a tough or a clever negotiating tactic, it’s a reckless and foolish gamble,’ said Blackford, not unreasonably.
‘Will the Secretary of State embrace common sense and recognise the need for a Brexit extension? Show some leadership, face down the hardliners in the Tory party, extend the Brexit transition and let us all get on with the job of tackling this health crisis together.’
Raab, of course, is one of the hardliners in the Tory party. ‘If his desire is to avoid more uncertainty then the right thing for us to do is to double down, get a deal by the end of this year,’ he replied. We’ll see.
Elsewhere, Zarah Sultana (Labour, Coventry South) told the government which has effectively nationalised the entire economy that it ‘should be bailing out the 99%, not the 1%’. In Zoom background news, the bookshelf of Alison Thewliss (SNP, Glasgow Central) demonstrated she has Scotland’s largest Jo Nesbo collection.
Former Scotland secretary David Mundell, who appears to have struggled technically from his Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency, announced he had ‘finally escaped the Zoom waiting room’. Raab responded it was ‘always good to see him via Zoom, or especially via Zoom’. Mundell was an ardent Remainer.
And not one but two Conservative MPs – Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) and Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) caught the public mood by using their one question to demand that garden centres and nurseries be reopened. Have they been got at by Big Compost?