PMQs Review: The one with... hello? hello? You're on mute! Hello?
- Credit: Parliament Live
Today, President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris will be inaugurated in one of those grandiose ceremonies which America still does so well. Sure, the pomp and circumstance will be much pared-down because [checks] Biden's predecessor two weeks ago urged his supporters to march on Capitol Hill and overturn an election result through force. But it will still capture much of that spirit which underpins the American dream.
On the other side of the Atlantic, just a three hours earlier, the mother of all Parliament held its set-piece session of the week, dominated by Zoom calls dropping out, microphones remaining on mute, children audibly interrupting and, in a standout moment, one MP looking nonplussed at apparently hearing a telephone for the first time.
Yes, it was every God-awful Zoom meeting you've been in over the past 10 months rolled into one, right up to learning little other than many of your colleagues' tech-savviness haven't much progressed beyond the Atari ST.
Keir Starmer, returning to his CPS roots, chose to go in on the impact of the somewhat under-reported deletion of criminal records by the Home Office.
"It's 10 days since the Home Office mistakenly deleted hundreds of thousands of vital criminal records, including fingerprints, crime scene data and DNA records," he asked. "So can the prime minister tell the House how many criminal investigations could have been damaged by this mistake?"
Johnson waffled. "The Home Office is actively working to assess the damage and, as [Starmer] will know from the urgent question in the House a few days ago, they believe that they will be able to rectify the results of this complex incident and they hope very much that they'll be able to restore the data in question." Starmer persevered. Johnson waffled. He was working "round the clock" to sort the problem, the PM insisted.
So Starmer pressed Johnson over comments made by Priti Patel about the need to shut the UK border to international visitors last March to combat Covid-19, reading out the fairly unambiguous words from the home secretary, and asking the PM: "Why did the prime minister overrule the home secretary?"
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Johnson replied: "I think it was last March that [Starmer] along with many others was actually saying that we didn't need to close borders but, as usual, Captain Hindsight has changed his tune to suit events." He waffled a bit more. He was working "round the clock" to sort the pandemic, he said. "I must say the whole experience of listening to [Starmer] over the last few months has really been like watching a weather vane spin round and round depending on where the breeze is blowing," added the man who wrote two separate Telegraph columns, one in favour and one against EU membership, before choosing which to file at the last minute.
"Let the weather vane take me up to Aylesbury with Rob Butler!," hollered speaker Lindsay Hoyle in response, in a joke that was neither funny nor appeared to know what a weather vane was.
And then the fun and games began. Ian Blackford, whose weekly tour of his home via Zoom today took us to him perched on the end of a sofa next to a small bookcase, managed to get in his first question before his Zoom cut out. He later returned for his second question, a perfectly valid and timely one about China's treatment of its Uyghur minority to which the prime minister retorted by demanding to know if an independent Scotland would abolish the armed forces or the Foreign Office. He's definitely not gearing up for a second independence referendum, is he?
Nicola Richards (Con, West Bromwich East) dropped out immediately after a "You're muted" "No I'm not" exchange with Hoyle, leaving Lib Dem leader Ed Davey (remember him?) to skip in and try to replay his greatest hit of last year, committing Johnson to an independent inquiry into the government's handling of the Covid crisis. This time Johnson was rather less keen: "Of course, we will learn lessons in due course," i.e. when I'm done with this and earning £250,000 a pop on a US speaking tour.
More followed. Neil O'Brien (Con, Harborough) suffered the indignity of his landline going off throughout his question and reacted like the protagonist in Catherine Tate's frightened woman sketches, as if he'd never heard such a thing. Derek Thomas (Con, St Ives), meanwhile, propped up against a brick wall with its eyes darting from side to side, looked like he was in hiding, possibly from the children audibly interrupting him.
Tulip Siddiq (Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn), finally, asked about the continued plight of her constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose unjust jail sentence in Iran is due to end in 45 days. Johnson, whose erroneous description of Zaghari-Ratcliffe as teaching journalists he was forced to apologise for, said he was working "round the clock" to get her home. That clock was the only thing working in Westminster today.
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