The PMQs before a major fiscal statement is always a case of before the Lord Mayor’s Show, the equivalent of turning on Match of the Day to find they’ve inexplicably chosen to lead with West Brom v Burnley. The only MPs who have booked their seats not to be in the chamber for the main event are those who have lined up a question designed for a local press release (“What is the prime minister doing about changes to the 28 bus timetable in my constituency?”).
It’s the sort of session an opposition leader doesn’t have to go hard on in the knowledge he hasn’t got a sniff of a chance of being clipped up for the six o’clock news. But maybe it’s the tribulations within Labour – 13 members of the party’s ruling NEC theatrically stormed out of a virtual Zoom meeting yesterday for arcane procedural reasons which shouldn’t bother us here, or indeed anywhere – but Starmer had the fire in his belly today. As if to say to his members: this is what you voted for, remember?
It helped that Boris Johnson is still isolating after failing to keep two metres’ distance at a meeting with a Tory backbencher who later tested positive for Covid. In his bunker he looks even more out of his depth. But at least the sound had improved from last week (it later transpired that the Commons had been forced to lend Downing Street its own, superior, equipment and speaker Lindsay Hoyle wants it back).
“The prime minister may remember that in August last year he wrote the foreword to the ministerial code. It says, and I quote, ‘there must be no bullying, no harassment, no leaking, no misuse of taxpayers’ money, no actual or perceived conflicts of interest’,” began Starmer. “That is five promises in two sentences. How many of those promises does the prime minister think his ministers have kept?”
Johnson didn’t like the question, so just answered one he wished he’d been asked instead. “I believe that the ministers of this government are working hard and they are all doing an outstanding job in delivering the people’s priorities – and that is what we will continue to do,” he said, in an answer eagle-eyed readers will note is as much an answer to the question asked as “Bucharest” is to “What is 10 + 5?”.
Starmer asked specifically about Priti Patel and the report into her conduct which found she had shouted and sworn at staff. What message did it send that the independent advisor on standards has resigned but the home secretary is still in post?
Johnson replied that “frankly I make no apology for sticking up, for standing by a Home Secretary who, as I’ve said just now, is getting on with delivering the people’s priorities… she is getting on with delivering what I think the people of this country want, she is showing a steely determination and I think that is probably why his side continue to bash her”.
And on it went. Starmer worked his way through Johnson’s own list of the ministerial code and prosecuted his ministers’ breaches of it, and Johnson blamed somebody else. Leaking: who briefed the newspapers about England’s second lockdown, leading to a chaotic Saturday night press conference and the cancelling of Little Mix: The Search? Starmer was “really concentrating on trivia”, Johnson claimed (in fact a number of Cabinet ministers have had their phones examined).
Johnson would, he said, take Starmer’s questions a lot more seriously “if the leader of the opposition could explain whether or why the right honourable member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is still a member of the Labour Party”. Speaker Hoyle was not having it. “It actually is prime minister’s questions, not leader of the opposition questions,” he said, leading Johnson to shout and jab his finger. “Thankfully we’ve got the sound, we don’t want to lose it,” threatened Hoyle. “It was your end last week, by the way,” said Johnson, in his Trumpian determination to have the last word.
What about misuse of taxpayers’ money: how much had been spent on unusable personal protective equipment and how had Matt Hancock appointed an old university mate to a key advisory role, a mate who is also a major shareholder in a firm that specialises in lobbying the government? Simple: Starmer hates the private sector. His questions showed a “deep underlying Labour hatred of the private sector”, Johnson said, to which the Labour leader replied: “No-one is knocking the private sector, the government is knocking the taxpayer.”
“I think it’s a clean sweep – bullying, harassment, leaking, wasting public money and obvious conflicts of interest,” concluded Starmer. “It’s the same old story: one rule for the British public, another for the prime minister and his friends.” It was a pretty comprehensive 6-0, if only anybody had been watching.
Elsewhere, Andrew Rosindell (Conservative, Rosindell), a Brexit hardliner who likes dialling in for Zoom to show off how many Union flags he has in his bedroom, called for “a full public cost-benefit analysis on its impact on our economy and public health” before putting London into strict post-lockdown measures. Fun fact: Rosindell is one of those Brexiteers who have always dismissed claims of any impact of Brexit on the economy as “Project Fear”. Less fun fact: Rosindell’s constituency is in the borough of Havering, one of those with the highest level of Covid infections in the capital.