Today’s PMQs was – definitely? maybe? – the last of 2020. That makes the session technically the Christmas special, and while, unlike most TV spectaculars, this gratifyingly wasn’t twice the usual length, at least it provided all the catchphrases you’ve come to know and love since Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer came to occupy the two main roles.
There was the classic ‘Starmer accuses Johnson of mishandling the pandemic and Johnson choosing to interpret it as a devastating attack on key NHS workers’. There was ‘Johnson answers a completely different question to the one he was asked, a bit like that old Two Ronnies sketch’. Fans of ‘Ian Blackford asks if the only way forward for Scotland is as an independent nation and Johnson reminds him the 2014 referendum was lost’ weren’t disappointed. And there was, of course, a hopeless Tory backbencher making a plaintive plea for the PM to visit a new college building in his Conservative. Like all TV specials, then, except for obvious reasons this year they couldn’t relocate to Spain.
The session began with Michael Fabricant (Conservative, Lichfield), the ludicrously coiffured Tory backbencher who looks like ’90s novelty act Mike Flowers has hit hard times. While he understood this whole pandemic is a bit of an issue at Christmas, he said – I paraphrase – would the PM agree “it would not be helpful if some smarmy lawyer were to argue for a change in the laws?”. Warming to his theme, he purred that Johnson was “not smarmy and not a lawyer,” only to be cut off by speaker Lindsay Hoyle. “We get the message,” he said.
Absolutely, Johnson agreed – there was “unanimous” agreement across the UK’s four nations on Christmas easing (fun fact: within the half hour Wales announced it was limiting Christmas bubbles to two households and was locking down immediately afterwards, while Scotland said it was limiting to three households meeting for one day only and without overnight stays – significant deviations one and all).
Starmer went through his greatest hits on Johnson’s mishandling of the pandemic across the year, all of which the prime minister met with a combination of bluster, untruths and his usual and increasingly tiresome claims that the leader of the opposition should be getting behind the government and not, say, opposing it. But he did score a couple of notable hits.
Noting that Dominic Cummings’ esoteric north-east eyesight test had been the moment when public trust in the government broke down, Starmer asked: “Now we learn that while the PM and chancellor are telling the armed forces, police officers, care workers and fire fighters that they will get a pay freeze, Dominic Cummings has been handed at least a £40,000 pay rise. How on earth does the PM justify that?”
Here’s Johnson’s answer to that very specific question: “He totally trivialises the efforts of the British people in getting the virus down. We will continue with that tiering system and we will get that virus down. That is the best way forward for this country. All he wants to do is to lock the whole country down, he’s a one-club golfer, that’s the only solution he has and then all he does is attack the economic consequences of lockdowns.” Yep.
Johnson tried to whip up his small band of backbenchers up with the claim Starmer wanted to “cancel Christmas” – “I wish he’d had the guts to just say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas” – in remarks which are absolutely not going to blow up in his face in January when we’re back in lockdown thanks to a massive and entirely predictable third wave.
Finally the Labour leader concluded by reading extracts from the “official newsletter of the Wellingborough Conservative Party”, telling the Commons: “It gives a lot of advice to wannabe politicians. It says this: ‘Say the first thing that comes into your head – it’ll probably be nonsense, you may get a bad headline, but if you make enough dubious claims fast enough, you can get away with it’.
“So my final question to the prime minister is this: is he the inspiration for the newsletter or is he the author?” Johnson responded by criticising Starmer, apropos of nothing, for lacking an opinion on Brexit, adding: “In the words of the song, all I want for Christmas is a view.” He then sat down looking, yes, smarmy.
Finally, a couple of contenders for obsequious Tory backbencher of the week. Henry Smith (Crawley), a Brexit hardliner, really had the prime minister on the rack by asking if he agreed “that this great, outward-looking nation has a world of global opportunities ahead of it”. He did!
But first prize to Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) who wondered if it just might be possible to praise Johnson’s “great resolve and determination in leading our nation”. What a trooper. He’ll be foreign secretary this time next year. And with that, Merry Christmas.