PMQs Review: The one with the big but

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

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

So, from the high drama of the US election, with its baseless accusations of fraud and days and possibly weeks of legal uncertainty ahead, to prime minister's questions, where the tension is confined to which sycophantic Tory backbencher will ask whether the prime minister will go ahead with his vow to build build build for jobs jobs jobs.

Theoretically, this could have been a tense session: the first since Boris Johnson announced a four-week lockdown in England having sent out his hapless ministers to rubbish the idea across the media up to and including last week. Surely even Johnson couldn't try and bluster his way out of this one by claiming that actually, the success of the government's brilliant regional tier strategy was precisely the reason a national lockdown was needed? Well...

Before any of that, though, some hilarious parliamentary comedy. "The whole House is talking about the result of a heavily contested election...," began Johnson, "...and indeed it is a year ago to the day Mr Speaker that you were elected Speaker! May I, on behalf of all members, wish you a very happy anniversary and thanks to you Mr Speaker for making the speakership great again." Johnson's side, and the Speaker himself, erupted in laughter at the satirical bon mot the likes of which the Daily Telegraph was prepared to, and probably will do again, pay £275,000 a year.

After dodging a question from Keir Starmer about Trump's unsubstantiated fraud claims - we don't comment on other countries' elections, especially if we're desperate for a post-Brexit trade deal - we moved quickly on to the lockdown. On September 21, Starmer pointed out, when the government's scientific advisers indicated a circuit break would bring the virus back under control, the number of people that day who lost their lives to Covid-19 was 11. On Monday, 42 days later, it was 397.

"That's a staggering 35-fold increase," said Starmer. "Does the prime minister understand the human cost of his delay in acting?"

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He did not. "It was always right to pursue a local and a regional approach as our scientific advisers said," blustered Johnson, "and I'll tell you why, Mr Speaker, because that approach, that regional approach, actually was showing signs of working and still is showing signs of working." So why ditch it? Answer came there none.

Would the lockdown end on December 2, as the prime minister has promised, asked Starmer. The answer: it definitely will, unless it doesn't. "As I informed him repeatedly on Monday, these measures, these autumn measures to combat the surge, will expire automatically on December 2," he vowed. "But that depends on us all doing our bit now to make sure that we get the R [value] down." That seems like an awfully big but. But, like Sir Mix-a-Lot, Johnson likes big buts and he cannot lie.

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Starmer asked for "some basic honesty" from the PM, which was funnier than Johnson's own joke earlier. Johnson urged Starmer to read an article by Tony Blair in today's Daily Mail, which he used as an opportunity to attack Jeremy Corbyn who, eagle-eyed readers will have noticed, is not leader of the opposition anymore.

Elsewhere, Mary Kelly Foy (Labour, City of Durham) rose to tell the House how, in her short time as an MP, "Dominic Cummings has fatally undermined public health messaging, has historic planning violations exposed and has short-changed us with an unpaid council tax of up to £50,000. Will the prime minister condemn this continued flouting of the rules, or does he have a blind spot that even a trip to Barnard Castle can't fix?".

Johnson did not: the real villain of the affair was not Cummings, but Labour. "I think what has possibly undermined people's confidence and understanding of what the government is trying to do is the constant party-political point-scoring and attempts to obscure what we're trying to do by the Labour Party," he said, to murmurs from his own backbenches.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln), a Tory headbanger who thinks gay marriage will lead to polygamy, was the patsy lined up to ask Johnson about the EHRC report into anti-semitism within the Labour Party. Johnson singled out Unite boss Len McCluskey for making "a remark of the kind that he did". (McCluskey recently told Peter Mandelson, who is of Jewish descent, to go and count his gold).

But one question remains unanswered: who was the guitarist in the framed photo to the right of Labour MP Jeff Smith, Zooming in from his constituency of Manchester Withington? Was it Leo Sayer? Or Smith himself in his younger days? Something to mull over for the next four weeks.

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