Well, it finally came. For a year speaker Lindsay Hoyle has been tolerating Boris Johnson’s antics in prime minister’s questions – the ignoring of questions, the deliberate misnaming of the third-largest party, the sheer disdain of spending 30 minutes being held to account; 30 minutes which, in happier times, he could have knocked out a half-arsed column on EU cheese regulations for the Daily Telegraph for considerably more than his prime ministerial salary.
Perhaps it was last week’s salutary lesson from Washington, D.C. on what happens when you allow political discourse to become completely vitiated, but Hoyle, who has on occasions during Johnson’s premiership allowed himself to look a little too amused by the prime minister’s behaviour, seems to have had a bellyful.
It came after Keir Starmer asked about the ludicrous pictures of food parcels consisting of little more than a tin of beans, a couple of manky bananas and two random carrots, handed out in place of school meal vouchers to feed children for 10 days, went viral on social media yesterday. Would Mr Johnson be happy to feed his own children with that, he questioned, as if the prime minister knew what his children ate, or indeed where or who they are.
Johnson boasted that he had spoken to Marcus Rashford, “who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job by comparison to [Starmer] in holding the government to account on these issue”. The company responsible had “rightly apologised and agreed to reimburse”, he said. To which Forensic Keir pointed out he had checked the government guidance on free school meals, published by the Department for Education,
which suggested “one loaf of bread, two baked potatoes, block of cheese, baked beans, three individual yoghurts”. He added: “Sound familiar? That’s the image you just called disgraceful.”
Johnson did his claret-faced thing. “The right honourable gentleman’s question would be less hypocritical and absurd if it were not that the…”.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think anybody’s a hypocrite in this chamber,” interjected Hoyle with charming faux-naivety. “I think we need to be a little bit careful about what we say to each other. There was a ‘not truth’ earlier and there was also comparisons with others – please, let’s keep the discipline in this chamber and the respect for each other. We’re tidying up how this Parliament behaves.”
“Let me confine my criticism to the absurdity – which I hope is accepted, Mr Speaker – of the right honourable gentleman attacking us over free school meals when it was a Conservative government that instituted free school meals,” responded Johnson, apropos of largely nothing. In fact, it led into a rant with all the coherence of a drunk on the night bus home, culminating in the utterly irrelevant “This was the party that wanted us to stay in the European Union vaccine programme!” before being cut off again by Hoyle. “There are questions, and sometimes we’ve got to answer the question to what was asked of you,” pointed out the speaker to Johnson’s apparent incredulity.
Still, at least Starmer got a chance to ask a few questions in what was largely a friendly affair for the PM. An exception was the SNP’s Ian Blackford, who told the tale of a constituent in Lochaber, a producer and exporter of shellfish, £40,000 of whose “fresh, high-quality produce” was lost and unable to be sold due to Brexit-related bureaucracy and delays in exporting it. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that Johnson (a) ignored the question, (b) deliberately got the SNP’s name wrong and (c) counter-productively reminded everyone that the party favoured Scottish independence. “It is the policy of the Scottish Nationalist [sic] Party not just to break up the United Kingdom under their hare-brained scheme, but also to take Scotland back into the EU and hand back control of Scottish fisheries to Brussels, thereby throwing away all those opportunities,” he bellowed.
The nominally-chummy Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP, Lagan Valley) appeared via Zoom to warn Johnson that, in his constituency, “consumers are facing empty supermarket shelves, they can’t get parcels delivered from Great Britain” and “small businesses can’t bring in spare parts and raw materials into Northern Ireland from Great Britain”. Johnson reassured him that he was actually wrong and none of those things were happening. “I can tell the right honourable gentleman that at the moment goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” he cheered. Phew!
Two contenders for obsequious Tory backbencher of the week: both Ruth Edwards (Rushcliffe) and Jacob Young (Redcar) asked about the government’s dubious freeports policy, but the former edges it for appearing via Zoom and making it clear she was reading it from her screen by failing to make eye contact with her camera. Young, meanwhile, had made the essential 250-mile journey to Westminster to ask his planted question and was rewarded with a “Mr Hydrogen, as I think my friend is now known!” from the PM. Which is unfair: unctuous toadies like Young make up considerably more than 75% of the mass of the Tory parliamentary party.
Finally, Zoom always provided us with a peak into MPs’ home lives, so this week’s question: why did Kevin Brennan (Labour, Cardiff West), appear with his own signature printed out and framed behind him?