PMQs Review: The dark end-of-season finale
PUBLISHED: 14:06 25 March 2020 | UPDATED: 15:04 25 March 2020
The chamber was as empty as Boris Johnson’s rhetoric as MPs convened for the final PMQs for a potentially long time - and Jeremy Corbyn’s last ever
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Only a small proportion of MPs had bothered, sensibly, to trek to London for the last session before the parliamentary break, and those who were in the chamber were on orders to observe social distancing, sitting the requisite distance apart. It meant there was clear green between Jeremy Corbyn and his usual bench buddy, shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler, but she was still on hand to nod and loudly say ‘yes’ to each of her leader’s utterances. The Phil Neal to his Graham Taylor.
It being at a time of national crisis, speaker Lindsay Hoyle agreed to extend it to Bercow time - a full hour - with the twist of allowing Corbyn 12 questions and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford four, which seemed a particular cruelty to inflict on a suffering nation.
It was, of course, Corbyn’s final PMQs as leader of the opposition, a particularly pathetic attempt to get #CorbynMustStay trending on Twitter at the weekend having fallen on deaf ears. Johnson was forced to hand over the metaphorical carriage clock.
“Perhaps I could begin by pointing out that this is the honourable gentleman’s last prime minister’s questions and it would be appropriate for me to pay tribute to him, his service to the party and indeed the country over the last four years in a very difficult job,” he said.
“We may not agree on everything but no-one can doubt his sincerity and determination to build a better society.”
Corbyn was having none of this. “He was talking as if it was some kind of obituary,” he responded
“To let him know, my voice will not be stilled, I will be around, I will be campaigning, I will be arguing and demanding justice for the people of this country and indeed the rest of the world.” Somewhere in North London the sound of a former director of public prosecutions kicking a chair could be heard.
To sum up the rest of Johnson and Corbyn’s sparring, it was pretty much the same as the rest of the session: Corbyn (or another MP) would ask when coronavirus testing would be rolled out, and Johnson said soon. Then Corbyn (or another MP) would ask when financial assistance would be offered to the millions of self-employed people not covered by the government’s already-announced rescue packages, and Johnson said soon. Then Johnson repeats his ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ slogan. It seems to be playing well with his MPs at the moment although how long it will be sufficient remains to be seen.
Anyway, that was it for Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions. Jeremy, you started in 2015 very bad at it and, by the end, were marginally better. Oh, and to top it all off, and in a very fitting denouement, Seumas Milne and two other advisors were booted out of the public gallery for taking photographs.
Elsewhere, Bob Blackman (Conservative, Harrow East) was the patsy tasked with setting up the question to allow Johnson to have a Trump-esque pop at Sadiq Khan, blaming the London mayor for “huge, packed trains with people who potentially are infecting other people” in the capital. “For God’s sake” and “cheap” were among the cries from the Labour benches.
“I understand very well the job that the current mayor is doing and my own view is that we should be able to run a better tube system at the moment, we should be able to get more tubes on the line,” said Johnson.
“But we will do whatever we can, I do not wish in any way to cast aspersions on what is going on at TfL at the moment because it is an outstanding organisation.” Eagle-eyed readers will note that cast aspersions was literally what he was doing.
Finally, while most no-deal Brexiteers have managed to bite their lips on how coronavirus might affect their own favourite hobby-horse, a national crisis wasn’t going to stop Rob Butler (Conservative, Aylesbury), an obsessively anti-HS2 campaigner, from using it to further his. The project must be cancelled as contractors were “coughing over” local residents, he claimed. “Everybody should work from home if they possibly can and construction should only take place in a way that is in accordance with public health and industry advice,” said the PM, dodging it entirely.
That’s it now until April 21. Or, potentially, an awful lot longer.
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