PMQs Review: The one where the PM got angry at the opposition for opposing
- Credit: PA
As Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of dodging the question or giving dodgy answers, the PM's temper flared
There's a clue in the name Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition as to its role, but it appears lost on Boris Johnson. It could be, as this column has suggested previously, because he was never said no to as a child. It could be because the previous leader of the opposition found PMQs an unwelcome distraction from rewatching YouTube videos of himself at Glastonbury in his office. But whatever it is, Johnson still cannot get his head around why, at lunchtime every Wednesday, this nasty man questions him on what he's doing and why he's doing it.
Keir Starmer gets under the PM's skin. We know this, because - as today - Johnson's temper flares and fun-time zip-line Bozza is temporarily replaced with the man who gave a journalist's address to a friend who wanted to crack his ribs.
Their exchanges today started off weirdly, on both sides. Weirdly, because Starmer chose to nose off on the government's track, test and isolate capacities which, while important, are perhaps not top of the public's concerns. Still, as he pointed out, Johnson had promised 'a world-beating system would be in place by 1 June' while in actual fact just over 10,000 people with Covid-19 have been reached and asked to provide contact details.
'I do recognise the hard work that has gone into this,' said Starmer, accurately foretelling Johnson turning any criticism of the government's response into a direct attack on frontline workers, 'but if two-thirds of those with Covid-19 are not being reached and asked to provide contact details, there's a big problem, isn't there?'.
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Johnson's response, though, was even weirder. 'On the contrary, I think he has been stunned by the success of the Test and Trace operation and, contrary to his prognostications of gloom, it has got up and running, I think, much faster than the doubters expected.' Which is nonsense, of course - the government has recruited tens of thousands of tracers, but the anecdotal evidence is most are twiddling their thumbs and shopping on Amazon. But there's that language again - 'prognostications of gloom', 'doubters', this Covid-19 will just go away with a good old dose of British chin-up.
Starmer then pressed Johnson on whether the government's promised contact tracing app was critical or not in combating the virus. Matt Hancock having described it at the weekend as 'additional support' having previously dubbed it critical.
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'I wonder whether he can name a single country in the world that has a functional contact tracing app? Because there isn't one,' said Johnson.
'Germany - 12m downloads,' said Starmer. Mikrofon fallen, as they say in German.
Johnson continued where he left off last week, demanding Starmer say that children should return to school. This is also weird, because the non-attendance is not down to public pronouncements by the Labour leader but the chronic mishandling of it by his own education secretary, but there you go.
Starmer highlighted how two previous answers from the PM about a decrease in absolute child poverty and relative child poverty were judged 'mostly false' by the office of the Children's Commissioner for England, while another claim about fewer families living in poverty was also deemed 'false'.
He went on: 'He's been found out. He either dodges the question or he gives dodgy answers.
'No more witnesses, I rest my case. Will the prime minister do the decent thing and correct the record in relation to child poverty?'
Johnson, increasingly raging, replied: 'I'm happy to point out to my learned friend that actually there are 100,000 fewer children in absolute poverty and 500,000 falling below the thresholds of low income and material deprivation.' That 'learned friend' thing - perhaps it's Starmer's previous career which particularly sets Johnson off, having been presumably taken to the cleaners by lawyers earlier this year over his divorce. He then returned to the schools thing.
Finally, as so often the case these days, there was no standout obsequious question of the week from the Tory backbenches. Johnson's MPs increasingly rise to ask specific questions about their local economy. Is it the case, as suggested recently, that the new intake are more loyal to their constituents than their leader? If so, Johnson is in real trouble.
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