Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer returned to the Commons for their rematch today and it didn’t go any better for the prime minister
Here’s a question. What does Boris do in his prime minister’s questions preparations? Because, week two of Johnson v Starmer, it’s beginning to look like nothing at all. David Cameron was derided as an ‘essay crisis’ PM, but at least there was some evidence he’d given the most rudimentary of thought as to what his opposite number might ask him. But Johnson comes across as having spent the preceding two hours drumming on his desk like George Constanza working on the Pensky file.
The only suggestion Johnson had prepared today was a lame joke about ‘Hay-on-Wifi’ in response to a tame tourism question from a Welsh Tory. This is fine when you’re facing Jeremy Corbyn, who gave the impression he wasn’t listening to the PM’s responses. But it’s not when you’re facing the former director of public prosecutions. And it’s certainly not when you haven’t got the masked ranks of braying backbenchers behind you to cover your backside.
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Opening proceedings, Starmer said: ‘In his speech on Sunday the prime minister said we need to rapidly reverse the awful epidemic in our care homes, but earlier this year, and until 12 March, the government’s own official advice was, and I’m quoting from it, ‘it remains very unlikely that people receiving care in a care home will become infected’.
‘Yesterday’s ONS figures show that at least 40% of all deaths from Covid-19 were in care homes. Does the prime minister accept that the government was too slow to protect people in care homes?’
Johnson replied: ‘No Mr Speaker it wasn’t true that the advice said that, and actually we brought the lockdown in care homes ahead of the general lockdown.’
So did the advice say that? Here it is, on a document which was withdrawn on March 13 but still available on the government’s own website: ‘This guidance is intended for the current position in the UK where there is currently no transmission of Covid-19 in the community. It is therefore very unlikely that anyone receiving care in a care home or the community will become infected.’ So why, unforced, did Johnson say something demonstrably untrue? I refer you to the fable of The Scorpion and The Frog.
Starmer also asked why the government had ‘stopped publishing’ international comparisons.
Johnson said: ‘The UK has been going through an unprecedented once-in-a-century epidemic.
‘And he seeks to make comparisons with other countries, which I’m advised are premature because the correct and final way of making these comparisons will be when we have all the excess death totals for all the relevant countries.’
Starmer said he was ‘baffled’ by Johnson’s dismissal of the need for international comparisons, given the government had done so for seven weeks with its press conference slides.
‘The problem with the prime minister’s answer is it’s pretty obvious that for seven weeks when we weren’t the highest number in Europe they were used for comparison purposes, as soon as we hit that unenviable place they’ve been dropped.’ Oof. It’s a bit more difficult, this, than looking funny hanging from a zip wire.
Elsewhere, acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey tried a cheeky little shot from the edge of the box by thanking the government ‘for listening to representations from the Liberal Democrats and others to protect jobs by extending the furlough scheme yesterday’. Even Davey himself struggled to suppress a smile as Johnson admired his ‘brilliant attempt to take the credit from my right honourable friend the chancellor.’
Brexit headbanger Peter Bone (Con, Wellingborough) went on a Trumpian rant calling for the ‘morally corrupt, totally biased and morally bankrupt’ Electoral Commission to be abolished after the Metropolitan Police ended its investigation into two pro-Brexit campaigners. Johnson side-stepped it.
In Zoom-watch, Fay Jones (Con, Brecon and Radnorshire) had what looked like a model of the Queen on a shelf behind her. More concerningly, Jamie Wallis (Con, Bridgend), who has been criticised over his alleged involvement in a ‘sugar daddy’ dating website, appeared to have got some sort of lubricant all over his laptop’s camera, such was the difficulty of seeing him. He used his question for a partisan attack on the Labour Welsh Government, which even Johnson didn’t rise to.
Finally, Simon Baynes (Con, Clwyd South) used an actual global pandemic to ask the prime minister if he would visit a steam railway in his constituency. Johnson reminisced over a previous visit with William Hague. Ah, you could see him thinking. This was how it was supposed to be.