PMQs Review: The one with the hugs and stags

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer appearing at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer appearing at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons - Credit: Parliament

Test and trace. Test and trace. It's vital, and there's plenty going on, not least in Parliament where, each week, Keir Starmer tests Boris Johnson to find any trace of coherence or competence in his government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Reports are currently low.

And this wasn't a classic encounter. Johnson was, even by his own standards, particularly flighty even when dealing with literal matters of life and death. Still, his backbenchers were more raucous in their support than they had been recently, perhaps seeking to cheer the PM up following weekend reports he was sad because being prime minister doesn't earn enough to pay for all the children he keeps absent-mindedly fathering.

Starmer, meanwhile, was at his most lawyerly.  He questioned why Johnson yesterday said the test and trace system had "very little or nothing" to do with the spread or the transmission of Covid-19, after previously hailing it as a game changer. "Both positions cannot be right - which one is it prime minister?," he asked.

Johnson blah-blah-blahed about aerosols and granular details and keeping kids in school and various other things unconnected to the question at hand. 

"Pretending there isn't a problem is part of the problem, prime minister," responded Starmer. "Is the explanation from the PM that we haven't got enough capacity because nobody could have expected the rise in demand? That's the Dido Harding defence - or is it we've got all the capacity we need, it's just that people are being unreasonable in asking for tests? That's the Hancock defence."

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This appeared to rile Johnson. "I must say that the continual attacks by the opposition on Dido Harding in particular are unseemly and unjustified," he harrumphed, defending the honour of the woman appointed head of the NHS Test and Trace programme despite having no qualifications for running a public health service in a national emergency. "Testing more people than any other European country," he continued to Tory cheers. "We're going to go up 500,000 tests by the end of October." That's a date for Starmer's diary.

Using his traditional last answer, to which Starmer can't reply, he attacked shadow education secretary Kate Green for apparently saying "don't let a good crisis go to waste". "That's the real approach of the Labour Party," said Johnson. "Seeking to create political opportunity out of a crisis." He might want to have a word with the leader of the government currently using Covid as a cloak for delivering his hardliners the no-deal Brexit they thirst for while simultaneously dismantling the civil service.

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Elsewhere it was a day of hugs and stags. Hugs because SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, whose lengthy questions are increasingly resembling plaintive soliloquies, told the House that "the only reassurance the prime minister gave those Scottish workers [at risk of losing their jobs due to the furlough scheme was] saying that he would throw his arms around them. Prime minister, I can tell you the last thing those 61,000 Scots are looking for is a hug from you". 

Johnson responded: "I can imagine that he doesn't want a hug from me, but that was a metaphor." Then, calling the next speaker, Andrew Bowie (Con, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine), speaker Lindsay Hoyle suggested that he, though, might like a hug from the PM. "Not in present company," said Bowie, not as comfortable as flaunting himself publicly as his late rock-star namesake. Grahame Morris (Labour, Easington) also mentioned hugs in his question, but it was so rambling it was impossible to know why.

And there were stags: specifically Mansfield Town Football Club, who were mentioned in not one but two questions relating to getting fans back into grounds. In response to James Wild (Con, North West Norfolk) Johnson, who is not a football fan, implausibly claimed it "grieved" him to see clubs play behind closed doors.

Finally Sammy Wilson (DUP, East Antrim), a hardline unionist and anti-lockdown warrior, rose to criticise "scare tactics" and questioned whether the latest briefing from the government's chief scientists were "as exaggerated as the claims that there would be half a million deaths in weeks made at the beginning of the year".

Johnson responded: "He makes a powerful point of scepticism about the medical forecasts." So there you go - the prime minister doesn't necessarily believe his own advisers. Keep testing and tracing, testing and tracing...

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