PMQs Review: The one with the child who was never said no to
- Credit: PA
As Boris Johnson lashed out at the first hint of scrutiny, PMQs suddenly seems to matter again
PMQs suddenly seems to matter again. After a brief hiatus, when the gloves were put on amid a national coming-together and the prime minister's own hospitalisation, and five years during which the opposition frontbench was predominantly staffed by the junior common room of a third-rate university, it's back.
Back because the public trust in the government, which held up remarkably well in two months of lockdown, has frayed badly in the wake of Dominic Cummings' trip to a charming north-east market town and the PM's subsequent decision to invest his entire political capital in retaining him.
Back too because the opposition is led by someone who would make any prime minister's head hurt even in a time of non-crisis.
Of course the retort to this is that nobody watches PMQs so it doesn't matter. But it does in that nowhere else quite reveals the personality of the premier: David Cameron the swaggering Flashman, Theresa May the disappointed headteacher. And in Boris Johnson we have the PM who was never said no to as a child.
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It's there in the actual confusion that Keir Starmer is scrutinising what he is doing. Who is this man to question me? And so the confusion leads to the deflections - accusing Starmer of attacking the trackers and tracers rather than the policy-makers who have left them with little to do - and then the actual physical anger, the finger-pointing, the slapping of the despatch box. All counterpoints to the Telegraph columns that say, hey, Boris' problem is that he just loves people too much.
Starmer started with a pop at an open goal. 'The Telegraph is reporting this morning that the prime minister has decided to take direct control of the Government's response to the virus. So an obvious question for the prime minister, who's been in direct control up until now?'.
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Johnson replied that he took 'full responsibility for everything this government has been doing in tackling coronavirus and I'm very proud of our record'. (That record: 39,369 dead, the second highest in the world).
Starmer pointed out that 'two weeks ago today at the despatch box the prime minister promised that we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be 'world-beating and yes it will be in place by June 1'.
'But it isn't. And a critical element, the ability of local authorities to respond to local spikes, is missing.'
Johnson replied: 'I'm afraid he's casting aspersions on the efforts of tens of thousands of people who have set up a test, track and trace system in this country from a standing start.'
He wasn't, of course, any more than to bring up the cuts to police force budgets in recent years is a personal attack on frontline officers. But this is now Johnson's strategy with Starmer - any scrutiny is 'casting aspersions' on the staff trying to cope with the insufficient infrastructure put in place by his government.
Similarly, when Starmer said Mr Johnson's use of statistics was damaging public trust, quoting the UK Statistics Authority as saying that they 'still fall well short of expectations'.
'Can the prime minister see how damaging this is to public trust and confidence in his government?,' asked Starmer.
Johnson replied: 'I really do not see the purpose in his endless attacks on public trust and confidence.' And that's it: again, who is this man to question me?
Starmer said Johnson was 'confusing scrutiny for attacks', adding: 'I have supported the government openly and I've taken criticism for it, but boy he makes it difficult to support this government over the last two weeks.'
Finally, there was a descent into the absurd as Johnson attempted to justify the rushed return of MPs to Parliament, resulting in the absurd scenes yesterday of honourable members queuing around the corner of Portcullis House to vote.
'I do think [Starmer] needs to consider what is really going on throughout the country where ordinary people are getting used to queuing for long periods of time to do their shopping or whatever it happens to be.'
So there you go: MPs need to travel the length and breadth of the country to sit in a asbestos-riddled Gothic palace to do their job because, er, it sometimes takes 10 minutes to get into Tesco at peak time. The true reason, of course, for their return was to give Johnson more roaring support during encounters like this - but he didn't give them much to cheer about today.