PMQs Review: The one you might not read, but you’re aware of

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photo

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Keir Starmer today interrogated Boris Johnson about his response to the coronavirus crisis. The PM responded with a joke about pants

As the parliamentary session heads towards its long summer break, it's becoming clear that there's something about Keir Starmer which really gets under Boris Johnson's skin. This column has dabbled in cod-psychology before in trying to assess why - that Johnson is not using to being asked to account for his actions, that Starmer is a lawyer and the PM was in all likelihood taken to the cleaners by his trade over his divorce earlier this year - but there's definitely something there.

It is difficult to imagine any other combination of PM and opposition leader, say, in which a relatively benign question about what the former would say to the grieving families of virus victims was met with a hysterical tirade in which Johnson (a) shouted an entirely unrelated answer about Labour's response to the Brexit referendum in the manner of a drunk on the night bus home and (b) made a lame joke about pants which Jimmy Cricket would have dismissed as dated circa 1990. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Starmer led on the government's decision not to provide sector-specific support to those most at risk, saying it 'could end up costing thousands of jobs' and listing some of the eye-watering numbers on airline redundancies. Johnson did his usual vague shtick on what a marvellous job the government was doing. 'The problem with the prime minister's dismissal of this is that since the chancellor set down last week around 10,000 people have lost their jobs.' frowned Starmer. 'The prime minister should focus on them, not the rhetoric.'

He then moved to a report on the challenges this autumn and winter published by an expert advisory group yesterday, one which makes sombre reading for those not wholly keen on the idea of dying and which, Starmer said, 'set out strong recommended actions to mitigate the risks'. Would Johnson be implementing it in full?

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The PM said he was 'getting on with implementing the preparations for a potential new spike' before doing his thing of yelling the numbers of new nurses and doctors the government was employing, to the theatrical 'oh!'s of the few MPs behind him.

This didn't impress Starmer. Had the PM actually read the report, he asked? 'Of course I'm aware of the report,' retorted Johnson. But this is not the same thing. I'm aware of Ulysses, but I sure as Hell haven't read it.

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Following a brief and unhelpful set-to on the test and trace system - Johnson claimed it was 'as good as or better than' any other system in the world, Starmer pointed out it wasn't working, Johnson suggested this was an attack on those working for it - Starmer revealed he was meeting bereaved families of Covid-19 victims this afternoon. What was Johnson's message to them?

Following a brief platitude, the PM went on to a hysterical rant. 'One day he says it's safe to go back to schools, the next day he's taking the line of unions; one day they're supporting our economic programme, the next day they're saying our stamp duty cut is an unacceptable bung; one day they say they accept the result of the Brexit referendum, the next day, today, they'll tell their troops to do the exact opposite,' he fumed.

'He needs to make up his mind about which brief he's going to take today because at the moment he's got more briefs than Calvin Klein.' It was as unhinged as any Donald Trump rally.

If Starmer failed to get a straight answer out of Johnson, acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, running for the role full-time, did better. The PM voted for an independent inquiry into the Iraq War just months into the conflict, he pointed out, yet opposes one on the coronavirus response. 'If he still rejects an immediate inquiry, will he instead commit in principle to a future public inquiry, yes or no?,' he asked.

Johnson replied: 'As I've told the House several times, I do not believe that now in the middle of combating, still as we are, a pandemic is the right moment to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry, but of course we will seek to learn the lessons of this pandemic in the future and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened.' The 'right moment', of course, will be when Johnson is no longer PM but earning huge sums giving speeches in America.

Finally, obsequious Tory backbencher of the week was Katherine Fletcher (South Ribble), who told the House how her constituents were constantly telling her how grateful they are the Tories and not Labour are dealing with the pandemic, which is definitely a thing which happened. 'Can the prime minister confirm that, whilst there might be tough days ahead, this Conservative government is throwing the kitchen sink at fixing it?,' she asked.

Introduced as 'Mr Plumber' by speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who has delusions of comedy himself, Johnson vowed to throw 'not only the kitchen sink but every part of the kitchen'. This is nice, you could see him thinking. This is the bit I like. Why can't that Starmer chappie throw me a few more like this?

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