After a summer of u-turns and exam result chaos, PMQs returned with Boris Johnson preferring to talk about the IRA and Keir Starmer’s Brexit position
In the review of the final PMQs of the last session, I wrote that Boris Johnson ‘was, in short, pumping himself up for the 2019 general election’ and that the PM was ‘fighting the opponent he wished were there, rather than the one who is’. It concluded, following several months of Johnson v Starmer: ‘It is with some regret I have to inform you Season Two drops in September.’
Well, it is with even more profound regret I have to confirm, following a summer John Lewis’ campaign dubbed ‘like no other’, as if it was a good thing and not a couple of months of miserably photographing QR codes outside pubs in uncomfortable heats, September is here. And, to quote Johnson’s predecessor, nothing has changed. Nothing.
So, following a long hot summer of humiliating u-turns, and dominated by an extraordinarily botched exam results season in which state school students were effectively told by government to stay in their lane, Boris Johnson was back to holler about Keir Starmer backing Remain and, incomprehensibly, supporting the IRA. It was like Donald Trump and his bags of soup. In fact, it was so bad that speaker Lindsay Hoyle – who can give the impression of being a little too amused by the PM’s antics – stepped in with a yellow card.
Maybe this is what Tory MPs like. One unnamed newly-elected member is quoted in today’s Times as saying: ‘The bit he did on the Last Night of the Proms was great. We need more than that.’ Yes, that’s what we need – the only time the PM emerged from his Scottish hidey-hole all summer being to stir up a silly culture war over the Proms.
Johnson began by inelegantly sidestepping calls to reveal when he knew there was a problem with the exam algorithm for grades in England.
Starmer said: ‘We learned yesterday the education secretary knew well in advance that there was a problem with the algorithm.
‘So a straight answer to a straight question please, prime minister: when did the prime minister first know that there was a problem with the algorithm?’
Johnson responded that exams could not take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic – factually correct, which is something – and boasting that ‘we did act’.
He went on: ‘The students, the pupils of this country now do have their grades and I really ask him whether he will join me in congratulating those pupils on their hard work and whether he agrees with me that they deserve the grades they’ve got.’ Seasoned Johnson PMQ-watchers will be aware of this shtick by now.
Starmer said he had already congratulated students on their grades, adding, on why Johnson had ‘avoided’ his question: ‘He either knew of the problem with the algorithm and did nothing or he didn’t know when he should have. So let me ask again: when did the prime minister first know there’d be a problem with the algorithm?’.
Johnson pulled out all the tricks. Blamed someone else (‘Ofqual made it absolutely clear time and again that in their view the system that was in place was robust’), attacking Starmer for something he hadn’t done (‘undermining confidence’ in schools reopening), claiming to be ‘proving the doubters wrong’ and using a funny word (dubitation).
But it was when Starmer accused Johnson of being ‘just tin-eared and making it up as he goes along’ and that ‘even his own MPs have run out of patience’ that Johnson went fully foam-flecked.
‘This is a leader of the opposition who backed remaining in the EU and now is totally silent on the subject, now has performed a U-turn. He backed – in fact he still does Mr Speaker – this is a leader of the opposition who supported an IRA-condoning politician who wanted to get out of Nato and now says absolutely nothing. This is a leader of the opposition who sat on the front bench whilst there was anti-Ssemitism…’. It was then he was stopped by Speaker Hoyle.
Starmer – who pointed out that he spent five years in Northern Ireland, and as director of public prosecutions prosecuted serious terrorists – demanded a retraction. Johnson ignored it. Hoyle asked him to do similar and Johnson banged on about Jeremy Corbyn again before being told to sit down. It would be fun if this insistence on campaigning against former Labour leaders went backwards, and the Conservatives went into the 2024 general election warning people about Harold Wilson’s paranoia.
Elsewhere, Andrew Lewer (Con, Northampton South), an over-promoted councillor and Brexit hardliner, rose to give a tortured and not very clever analogy to explain why he shouldn’t have to pay the BBC licence fee. which Johnson described as a ‘very interesting point’. A reminder that a cultural war much bigger than the Proms is coming.
Finally, in other TV news, James Davies (Con, Vale of Clwyd), a relative newbie, stepped up to humiliate himself for the sake of two paragraphs in his local newspaper by asking the prime minister to congratulate ITV for staging this year’s I’m A Celebrity at Gwrych Castle in his constituency. Yes. We’re back alright.