Having struggled to answer questions since returning to the Commons, Boris Johnson today decided to ask them instead
Boris Johnson has found dealing with questions difficult since both returning to the Commons following his own bout with Covid-19 and Labour electing a leader with at least a passing interest in the prime issues facing the country. A chronic lack of attention to detail and complete contempt for scrutiny combine to make facing queries from his fellow elected lawmakers an irritant he could do without.
But PMQs is a thing and he has to go along with it. So here’s an idea: why not turn it on its head and pose the questions himself? Clever, no? And thus today we had the spectacle of the prime minister repeatedly asking the leader of the opposition to say out loud that parents should send their children back to school.
There are a couple of issues with this. Firstly, it presupposes that parents are not sending children to school because they’ve been waiting on the say-so of a man they almost certainly hadn’t heard of until a couple of months ago rather than, say, fear of little one bringing coronavirus home or that it’s virtually impossible to hold meaningful classes with a 2m limit in place.
And secondly, as much as people pay any attention to it, it helps foster the idea that Keir Starmer is a very important man whose views should be taken seriously. But it must be clever, as it was almost certainly dreamed up by Dominic Cummings and, if we’ve learned nothing else this pandemic, he is a man of unique acumen who solves Hilbert’s problems in the shower for a laugh.
So Starmer asked about a government-commissioned report into rising poverty and Johnson said the best way to help the poorest children in the country ‘would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now because their schools are safe’. Starmer asked about support for local authorities struggling to cope with the economic effects of Covid-19 and Johnson responded: ‘How can he talk about tackling the effect of coronavirus on the most disadvantaged? It’s the most disadvantaged kids who need to go back to school and it is those groups which, unfortunately, at the moment that are not going back to school. Let’s hear from him, one more time, will he say schools are safe to go back to? Come on.’
Starmer continued to ask about local government funding. Johnson said: ‘There are some councils, particularly Labour councils alas, that are not opening their schools when they could be opening them.
‘And I say to him, I hope for the last time, now is the moment when he can say to those Labour councillors that it is safe for kids to go back to reception, to year one, to year six, to early years. Will he now say it?’
Starmer responded: ‘Every week the Prime Minister seems to complain that I ask him questions at Prime Minister’s Questions. If he wants to swap place, so be it.’
Starmer accused Johnson of ‘chuntering’. Johnson claimed Starmer ‘hummed and hawed’. ‘A great ox has stood upon his tongue,’ he said. It was not great.
Elsewhere, acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey asked Johnson to accept the EU’s offer of a transition period extension and ‘put saving jobs before his Brexit ideology’. Johnson responded that ‘the people of this country are heartily sick of going on about Brexit. We got it done’. Hmmm.
Davey’s Lib Dem colleague Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) asked a perfectly good question about Scottish beef farmers being harmed by regulations that allow beef produced anywhere in the world to be labelled British if it was packaged here. Johnson responded that (a) it was probably an EU regulation, despite the fact that he almost certainly had never heard of it before and (b) it was the same EU ‘to which he is bound to return an independent Scotland should that catastrophe ever arise’. Independence is not Lib Dem policy. Johnson simply assumed this Scottish chappie was SNP.
Finally, in actual SNP news, Westminster leader Ian Blackford’s quest to use every possible background in his house during lockdown continued, today perching himself in front of what appeared to be a porcelain duck. You’re welcome.