PMQs Review: The one with the non-existent masks

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

At Westminster today, the talk was of a reshuffle of Boris Johnson's top team - no, not the cabinet, but the people actually running the country: the rag-tag bunch of unelected former Vote Leave staffers who surround the prime minister. 

Johnson is said to want to appoint Lee Cain, his hapless communications chief once employed by the Daily Mirror to dress up as a chicken and annoy David Cameron, as his chief of staff. This has apparently upset Carrie Symonds, the prime minister's current partner, leading to a stand-off.

In the chamber, however, Keir Starmer was channelling another prime minister who kept an occasionally disputatious court and the man he named as Labour's greatest leader when running for the role himself: Harold Wilson. It may have been unconscious, but it was hard not to think of Wilson as Starmer spoke of "the pound in your pocket".

It came as he pressed Boris Johnson on how much money has been wasted during the pandemic.

"This is not the prime minister's money, it is taxpayers' money," said Starmer. "The prime minister may well not know the value of the pound in his pocket, but the people who send us here do and they expect us to spend it wisely." To be fair, the prime minister probably does know the value as reports suggest he spends much of his time whingeing about not earning enough of it, but that's another story.

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Giving the example of a company awarded "about £150m" to produce face masks, Starmer said the government had "a lax attitude to taxpayers' money", adding: "How many usable face masks were actually provided to NHS workers on the front line under that contract?".

If you've already guessed that (a) the answer is none and (b) Johnson didn't answer it, well done.

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"We're in the middle of a global pandemic in which this government has so far secured and delivered 32bn items of personal protective equipment," said Johnson.

"And yes, it is absolutely correct that it has been necessary to work with the private sector, with manufacturers who provide equipment such as this - some of them more effectively than others. But it is the private sector that in the end makes the PPE, it is the private sector that provides the testing equipment, and it is the private sector that, no matter how much the party opposite may hate them, it is the private sector that provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs." It was left to Starmer to answer that, yes, that £150m had not yielded a single usable face mask.

It was an effective display by Starmer. "If they'd handed contracts to companies that could deliver, public money would have been saved. If they'd extended furlough sooner, jobs would have been saved. If they'd brought in a circuit-breaker when the science said so, lives would have been saved," he told Johnson. The prime minister stared at his feet like an attendee at an early 1990s My Bloody Valentine gig. More importantly, the rows of MPs behind him were muted.

Starmer concluded by highlighting the struggles of a self-employed photographer, Chris, who he had spoken to on LBC and who had been without an income since March. He asked Johnson: "What would the prime minister say to Chris and millions like him who are desperately waiting for the chancellor to address this injustice?"

"What I'd say to Chris and [Starmer] and to the whole country is the best way to get his job working again, the best way to get this country back on its feet, is to continue on the path that we are driving the virus down," said Johnson, repeating the mantra "hands, face, space". Yes, in response to a question from a desperate man without work for the best part of nine months, the prime minister's answer was to remind him to was his hands.

Elsewhere, Angela Eagle - she was the future, once, albeit very, very briefly - rose to ask about the US presidential election. "Does the prime minister now have any advice for his erstwhile best friend President Trump whose continuing refusal to accept the result is both embarrassing for him and dangerous for American democracy?," she asked.

Johnson replied: "I had and have a good relationship with the previous president, I do not resile from that - it is in the duty of all British prime ministers to have a good relationship with the White House." The previous president? That won't go down well with the man still insisting via capital letters on Twitter that he is the victim of some barely fathomable flimflam.

Finally, who was the most obsequious Tory backbencher of the week? Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) used the only 30 minutes a week MPs have to question the prime minister to let the House know that he had launched a Christmas card competition in his constituency.

But the prize goes to Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury), who asked a question combining help for rural communities and border communities which could be roughly paraphrased as "would the prime minister agree he is doing a terrific job?". He gets bonus points for doing it in front of a shelf packed with an impressive set of model horses. If only they were chickens he might get a job in Downing Street.

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