PMQs Review: The one where somehow it was Starmer's fault

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

Who's at fault for the public failing to understand the increasingly complex and contradictory local lockdown rules coming into place across much of England?

Is it Dominic Cummings and his coterie of weirdos and misfits, sketching them out on the back of an envelope from his NASA command in Whitehall, patting themselves on the back for how clever they are? Is it Boris Johnson, forced to backtrack after misunderstanding his own rules and giving the residents of the north-east licence to get down the Bigg Market?

Is it his crack team of ministers, like education minister Gillian Keegan, who admitted she didn't know them and justified herself by saying "I don't represent the north-east", thereby unilaterally granting the region devolution? Or business secretary Alok Sharma, who said journalists asking ministers of the Crown what people were legally allowed to do was a "gotcha line of questioning"?

No, of course not. It was all Keir Starmer's fault.

In a prime minister's questions slightly delayed because speaker Lindsay Hoyle was bollocking the government for pushing through coronavirus powers without debate, Starmer said: "One of the major problems, as we've seen in the last 24 hours, is widespread confusion about the local restrictions and I don't just mean the prime minister not knowing his own rules - having sat opposite the prime minister at PMQs every week that didn't come as a surprise to me.

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"If the prime minister doesn't understand the rules and his own council leaders are complaining about mixed messages, how does the prime minister expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?".

Johnson responded: "Actually, I think that the people of this country do understand and overwhelmingly do follow the rules, and that I may say is in spite of the efforts of [Starmer] continually to try to snipe from the sidelines, to undermine what we are trying to do, and he mentions the restrictions in the north-east, and I cleared that matter up as fast as I could."

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So there you go: it's Starmer's sniping which is causing all the confusion, and nothing, as ever, to do with Johnson. Readers with longer memories will remember when parents were not sending children back to schools because Starmer wasn't expressly telling them to do so, and not because they were all shut because the prime minister had installed a slavish sycophant with little interest in or aptitude for the job as education secretary.

(Incidentally, Mail on Sunday commentator Dan Hodges tweeted before PMQs that "some Ministers now speculating Boris deliberately messed up on the rules yesterday because he secretly wants as big a rebellion as possible", if anybody's got a bridge they wish to sell.)

Later Starmer asked about structural inequalities and discrimination ahead of Black History Month, saying that "black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth" and asking if Johnson would launch an investigation.

Would he? Or would he answer a question about ACTUAL BLACK WOMEN DYING IN CHILDBIRTH by saying Labour were "theoretically marching side by side with the rest of us trying to defeat coronavirus, the next minute they're off in the undergrowth firing from the sidelines"? Have a wild guess.

Elsewhere, in what was a particular weak session of PMQs, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked about the Tories' contempt for Scotland and Boris Johnson said there was a referendum on independence in 2014 and they'd lost it (this sentence is cut and pasted from last week's, and will be used again next week).

And Darren Henry (Broxtowe) and Jacob Young (Redcar) competed for the title of most pointless question from an obsequious Tory backbencher, with the latter just edging it. Welcoming a new hydrogen transport hub on Teeside, he looked awfully pleased with himself as he asked whether the PM agreed "that this is exactly how, under this government, we will build back better and greener, creating new jobs and putting Britain at the forefront of this world-leading industry". Watch this dangerous wildcard.

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