The first prime minister’s questions of 2020 was dire, but at least it was over quickly
John Bercow’s final prime minister’s questions clocked in at 71 minutes, seven minutes longer than the previous record, as MPs wanted to once again pay their obsequious tributes to the ongoing speaker and Bercow, ever gracious, allowed them.
But it was part of a long trend as Bercow – way ahead of the curve on Netflix on realising he had no time restraints on episodes – allowed what was once two rudimentary 15-minute sessions a week into a bloated carnival of attention-seeking puffery with rarely any change out of 50 minutes.
If new speaker Lindsay Hoyle wanted to put down an immediate marker he did so today by curbing the session at 33 minutes. 33 minutes! It was halted so unexpectedly abruptly that one half-expected the BBC to fill the unexpectedly free airtime with an old Daffy Duck cartoon (ask your parents, kids).
And gratifyingly abrupt too. Because all evidence suggests that the 2020 vintage of PMQs – at least until Labour gets a new leader, or the first Cabinet minister is forced to quit in shameful ignominy – is going to be a poor one.
For a start, Jeremy Corbyn took his seat on the opposition benches. This must have come as quite the shock to his Twitter outriders, still performing remarkable mental gymnastics to explain how actually, whatever the MSM tell you, their hero had actually won the election. Muted cheers met him from behind.
Opposite the Tories were braying, their jubilation only partly tempered by the realisation there were now northerners in their midst and thus a very real chance of getting pease pudding on their tailored jackets.
Now freed of facing reelection and having to ask questions about – yawn! – Brexit and the like, Corbyn was delighted to get back onto more comfortable territory: whether the US killing of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani was illegal. If Johnson has got the old Vote Leave gang back together on the government benches, this was Corbyn in his Stop The War Coalition pomp.
“Clearly the strict issue of legality is not for the UK to determine since it was not our operation,” the PM responded.
“But I think most reasonable people would accept that the United States has the right to protect its bases and its personnel.” Corbyn scowled.
Of perhaps more medium-to-long-interest was Johnson’s sniffy response to Ian Blackford’s inevitable question about a renewed mandate for a second Scottish independence referendum following the SNP’s successful general election showing.
“I think the real question is why the SNP keep going on about breaking up the most successful union in history,” hollered Johnson, apparently struggling with the “Scottish” and “National” part of the party’s name. Theresa May just about got away with these sort of responses, but with a relatively stronger base to Johnson north of the border. Watch this space.
Speaking of May, she was there, weirdly. We expect our former PMs now to disappear off to solve millennia-old geopolitical crises/write crushingly dull memoirs in a shed/whatever it is Gordon Brown does. May just sat there, laughing to herself.
And elsewhere: not much else. A few of the Tories’ new northern intake were given a brown-nosing planted question for a Facebook clip. And David Morris, an oddball Tory backbencher in a cravat popped up to ask for Johnson’s help in making Morecambe “the best place on the face of the planet”.
On 33 minutes, Hoyle had seen enough, like the rest of us, and blew the final whistle. Roll on Jess Phillips, or a degrading Grant Shapps resignation – whichever comes first.