PMQs Review: The one with the cold wet towel

Boris Johnson appearing before prime minister's questions in the House of Commons

Boris Johnson appearing before prime minister's questions in the House of Commons - Credit: Parliament

Boris Johnson's detailed grasp of geography is, like his detailed grasp of, well, pretty much everything, is at best rudimentary. So it fell a little flat today as he attempted to mock Keir Starmer about where he lived. Starmer is self-isolating after a member of his staff tested positive for coronavirus, forcing him to appear at PMQs via a video link and making him appear a little like computer-generated 1980s TV personality Max Headroom (one for the teenagers, to quote Tony Hancock).

"I'm delighted to welcome the right honourable gentleman from his vantage point in exile in Islington, his spiritual home," mocked Johnson. "It's Camden, not Islington, Camden," pointed out Starmer. It's worth remembering that Johnson was mayor of the capital for a full eight years, and if he still struggles to remember the difference, Islington is the one he lived with his wife in until relatively recently when she divorced him over his serial infidelities.

Starmer's North London home, as well as his profession as a lawyer, are favoured targets for Johnson, who this week added to them, with more than one reference to the Labour leader "putting a cold wet towel around his head" and thinking. Yes, thinking - another act, probably imported from France, that will be pilloried in Johnson's Brexit Britain in favour of good, old-fashioned reckoning.

The only issue in town is Brexit, for the time being still a tricky away fixture for Starmer at PMQs (expect this to change next year as the full horror unfolds). "12 months ago [Johnson] told the British people that he had an oven-ready deal. He didn't say he had half a deal, he didn't say the next stage will be very, very difficult," he said. "In fact he told the British people - this was before the election - he faced them and he told them, these were his words, that 'the chances of no deal were absolutely zero'."

The PM harrumphed and pulled faces. "I hesitate to accuse [Starmer] of deliberately trying to mislead people, but let's be in no doubt that we had an oven-ready deal which was the Withdrawal Agreement by which the people voted for, as he rightly points out, by which this country left the customs union and left the single market and delivered on our promise," he replied, sort of making the Labour leader's point.

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Starmer asked Johnson to tell MPs how many of the 50,000 customs agents he had promised would be in place on January 1. Johnson ignored it and continued to blather on about an "Australian solution", his continued preferred soubriquet for no-deal. It was all pretty unedifying.

Having a better day were the SNP, with Westminster leader Ian Blackford asking Johnson if he expected there to be resignations within his party if Scotland is denied access to the EU single market and customs union given the deal apparently agreed for Northern Ireland. "I think the only reasonable answer to that question is I think it highly unlikely that those letters will arrive," said Johnson.

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Better still were his SNP colleagues. David Linden (Glasgow East) rose to ask why the PM though there had now been 15 consecutive polls showing a majority for Scottish independence. Johnson reminded him that it had been rejected in 2014, but Linden was too enthusiastically waving bye-bye to pay attention. And Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) - Zooming in in front of a wall of gold records, to remind everyone he used to be a pop star - told the PM he was "probably the single biggest recruiting sergeant that we have, and for that we mightily thank him". Would Johnson "please take a bow and accept our many thanks," he asked? Johnson waffled about keeping "our wonderful United Kingdom together".

Elsewhere, there was competition aplenty for stupid obsequious Tory backbencher of the week. Saqib Bhatti (Meriden) rose to ask if the prime minister thought creating new green jobs would be a good idea. Yes, he would! "Jobs, jobs, jobs," burbled Johnson. And Marco Longhi (Dudley North), seemingly oblivious to the fact the PM's girth in part led to his being hit hard by Covid earlier this year, invited him to his constituency for a plate of Black Country battered chips. Meanwhile, it's not really obsequious, but a hat-tip to Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) for deciding the big issue to bring to the chamber was congratulating Coronation Street on its 60th anniversary.

But the big winner of the week was Bob Blackman (Harrow East). Regular readers will know Blackman Zooms in while wearing a microphone headset, something which, for the best part of nine months, has amused speaker Lindsay Hoyle so greatly he has been forced to make an air traffic control 'joke' when calling him to speak. This week one failed to arrived. So that's progress, at least - the only progress we're likely to get this week.

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