PMQs Review: The one with Holly from Red Dwarf

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

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

Is this the way they say the future's meant to feel? Back to the Future II promised we'd all be shooting around on hoverboards by now while clad in self-drying jackets; The Jetsons said we'd at least have colonised space.

But what we have, with Boris Johnson self-isolating after having a non-socially distanced, non-mask-wearing meeting with a Tory MP who later tested positive for Covid, was the prime minister appearing for the first time in the chamber via an ever-so-slightly grainy video link with tinny audio. As the LBC producer Ava-Santina Evans said on Twitter, it was "not a great advertisement for Jennifer Arcuri's technology lessons". Given we now know the government spent £21m on a Spanish businessman to act as a go-between to procure PPE, they could at least run to £100 for a Blue Yeti microphone.

So what we got was a blonde on a screen giving glib and unhelpful answers - basically Holly from Red Dwarf, to name-check another sci-fi. And Keir Starmer, pleased to get a 30-minute break from his own Corbyn-related woes, went in on Johnson's latest Zoom-based gaffe: calling devolution to Scotland a "disaster".

"Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government," said Starmer. "Until now, whatever our disagreements, there has been a very broad consensus about devolution. So why did the prime minister tell his MPs this week that Scottish devolution is, in his words, a disaster?"

Johnson demurred. What he'd actually said was a disaster was how the "Scottish Nationalist Party" had used devolution "as means not to improve the lives of their constituents, not to address their health concerns, not to improve education in Scotland, but constantly - and I know this is actually a point of view that is shared by [Starmer] - but constantly to campaign for the break-up of our country."

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This brought a rebuke from speaker Lindsay Hoyle. The SNP's N is National, not Nationalist, he pointed out. "They're national but not nationalist, I see, right," harrumphed Johnson. "We can play pedantics another time," responded Hoyle. (This would later raise its head when Johnson used the SNP's correct name "by your ruling". "It's not a ruling, it's a matter of fact," said Hoyle, who appears to be tiring of Johnson's peevishness).

"The single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom is the prime minister every time he opens his mouth," said Starmer, not inaccurately. 

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Starmer questioned Johnson on those who, unlike the PM himself, cannot afford to self-isolate. Johnson said his government was doing an "outstanding and exceptional" job to "protect people and support people throughout this crisis" and basically added they needed to keep washing their hands. The Labour leader also asked about the aforementioned £21m to a Spanish go-between, which Johnson, in a very Johnson way, chose to interpret as Starmer saying the government should never have attempted to procure any PPE and let everybody die.

"It is absolutely absurd Captain Hindsight is now once again trying to score party political points by attacking us for moving too fast," he fumed, once more employing the soubriquet that's caught the public imagination as much as when Gazza briefly tried to dub himself G8. 

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford's sword was blunted by Starmer already having led on the obvious devolution issue, although "His attack on devolution wasn't just a slip of the tongue, it was a slip of the Tory mask" was a good line. Johnson blathered on for so long about the strength of the Union and how Scotland would reject independence once again (despite 14 consecutive polls suggesting it won't) that Hoyle effectively muted him, cutting to the next question.

Elsewhere, it appears the latest penance of Margaret Ferrier, the SNP MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton suspended from the party after going on a Magical Mystery Tour of the UK having contracted Covid, is to be "audio-only", in Hoyle's words. She appeared in the form of an avatar of an old-fashioned landline.

And almost certainly a user of an old-fashioned landline is Christopher Chope (Conservative, Christchurch), a Tory hardliner very much at the sweet spot of a Venn diagram of those who want the hardest of hard Brexits while also thinking the pandemic is a load of old rubbish best ignored.

"More than one million fellow citizens have recovered after testing positive for Covid-19," he informed the House. "In the light of that, will [Johnson] follow the example of Sweden and exempt from all the Covid regulations those people who have tested positive within the last six months, and thereby show that he is following the science and also common sense?".

Johnson replied: "There is evidence both ways on that and I think that what everybody would accept is that everybody who does get pinged, everybody who does get contacted by NHS Test and Trace, should follow the rules." Fat chance of Chope doing that: you can't download an app on a landline.

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