PMQs Review: The one where it was grim up north

Boris Johnson speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons

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

Imagine seeing some of the exchanges in today's prime minister's questions a year below. If we didn't know what we know today, what would we have made of them?

"If tier two regions are moving into tier three, tier two has not worked, because if tier two worked they should be going into tier one," said Keir Starmer today. 

"So tier two goes to tier three, tier three has no end because there's no prospect or confidence in the R-rate coming below one, and I do not believe that a tier three region will come out of those restrictions unless the R is below one whilst the numbers are still going up."

What would we have thought it meant? It reads like a particularly convoluted 3-2-1 riddle, or an explanation of the draw for the UEFA Nations League.

What it meant today was that Starmer was explaining how Boris Johnson's whack-a-mole Coronavirus strategy was effectively just boxing regions into the highest tiers indefinitely, as opposed to his own favoured plan to initiate a two-week England-wide circuit-breaker lockdown. Johnson opposes this, first and foremost, apparently, because it would close schools, which will be closed anyway because it coincides with half-term.

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"Obviously the R is one of the measures that we look at and we'll take a decision based on a number of things, including the R, but also of course rates of infection, rates of admission to hospital and other data," explained Johnson, displaying the formidable attention to detail for which he is so famed. 

Starmer urged Boris Johnson to end his "corrosive" approach which resulted  in "local battles" for cash and instead support a Labour motion for a national criteria to resolve such matters.

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"This is a prime minister who can pay £7,000 a day for consultants on track and trace, which isn't working, can find £43m for a garden bridge that was never built but he can't find £5m for the people of Greater Manchester," he said.

Johnson thought he had an ace. He would give the people of Greater Manchester the £60m Andy Burnham had "turned down", he said, but would go above the metro-mayor's head and distribute it directly to the region's local authorities. "Heywood and Middleton, Bolton North-West, Bolton North-East, Bury South, Bury North, Cheadle, Leigh, Altrincham and Sale West and Hazel Grove...," he reeled off. Enterprising ravers of a certain age could put it to Jerusalem and some beats and recreate The KLF's It's Grim Up North.

(Incidentally, on a northern style point, Johnson thanked "the political leadership in Merseyside" for their help with implementing the new restrictions. Tut tut. One is never in Merseyside, one in ON Merseyside).

Elsewhere, having presumably forgotten to get dressed, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford appeared via Zoom solely by audio, his officially parliamentary portrait appearing in his place. He asked for the furlough scheme to be extended, twice, and Johnson said no, twice.

Johnson's preoccupation this session was not the Covid restrictions nor the economy, but his successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan. Catherine West (Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green) asked about reports of extending the congestion zone to the North and South Circular. "I must respectfully inform her that the current mayor of London had effectively bankrupted TfL before coronavirus had even hit and left a massive black hole in its finances," said Johnson, which is a lie. Bob Blackman (Conservative, Harrow East) asked the same thing, and Johnson repeated the lie.

And Sarah Olney (Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park) asked about the closure of Hammersmith Bridge, with Johnson replying that it was Khan's fault, which is a lie, and that it would be reopened by Shaun Bailey, which is a lie, as the Tories' candidate for London mayor next year is not going to be elected. Quite the performance even by Johnson's own rock-bottom standards.

Incidentally, when is speaker Lindsay Hoyle going to tire of his amusement that Blackman wears a headset and microphone when Zooming into Parliament? Today he was coming in "to land his question", Hoyle japed for approximately the 50th time. "Thank you ground control," said Blackman once again like he'd just been given a Werther's Original in exchange for having his hair ruffled. Hoyle should visit a call centre - it would blow his mind.

In a busy session, Johnson once again managed to put a Lib Dem MP in the wrong party. Having recently assumed Alistair Carmichael was SNP because he was Scottish, after deputy leader Daisy Cooper today asked about Marcus Rashford's campaign for free school meals Johnson weirdly reminded her that "the party opposite" had been in power for 30 of the past 100 years. If only, the Lib Dems sighed.

And finally, obsequious Tory backbencher of the week goes to Jo Gideon (Stoke-on-Trent Central). "I know the prime minister is committed to doubling down on levelling up," she embarrassed herself. "Will he join me on a virtual tour of Stoke-on-Trent Central and a round table with key partners focused on delivering for the left behind?".

Gideon's Babble, you might say,

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