PMQs Review: The one where the trap failed to go off

PUBLISHED: 14:07 09 September 2020 | UPDATED: 14:07 09 September 2020

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (L) and prime minister Boris Johnson during this week's session of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs); Parliamentlive.tv

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (L) and prime minister Boris Johnson during this week's session of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs); Parliamentlive.tv

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Boris Johnson was licking his lips at an opportunity to dub Keir Starmer a Remoaner at today’s PMQs. Trouble was, Starmer wasn’t playing

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According to a report in Sunday’s Observer, following last week’s PMQs - in which a foam-flecked Boris Johnson, struggling to defend the government’s handling of exam results, descended into a rant about Keir Starmer somehow supporting the IRA - the prime minister made a new demand on his team: dig up dirt.

Yes, Johnson, a man who, while his adversary was rising the ranks to becoming the country’s most senior lawyer was being sacked from a string of jobs for lying about affairs or making up quotes from his own godfather, was going to get personal. Well, best of luck with that.

Unsurprisingly, there was little of that today. But what Johnson did have up his sleeve was an opportunity to use Starmer’s inevitable questions about the government’s latest wheeze - to unilaterally tear up parts of his own Brexit withdrawal deal - to dub his opponent an Islington Remoaner.

“The right honourable gentleman doesn’t want us to erode trust at a critical point in negotiations over a free trade agreement while simultaneously signalling to the rest of the world we’re an unreliable partner and quasi-rogue state,” he must have envisaged himself bellowing in his dreams. “Then he, Mr Speaker, not only wants to rejoin the EU, ignoring the will of the people, but sign up to the euro and Schengen too!”. Tee hee, he must have thought. Clever old Boris!

Except there was one problem: Starmer wasn’t playing.

He began by describing the “frankly ridiculous” scenario of a mother who lives in London trying to secure a Covid-19 test for her four-year-old daughter. The woman, he said, was told the nearest place for a test was Telford or Inverness (!), before being offered Swansea as an option.

“This is frankly ridiculous,” said Starmer. “Who does the prime minister think is responsible for this?”.

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The answer, at least, was clear. It was Starmer himself, for “attacking” NHS workers through having the temerity to question the government’s strategy. “It is precisely because of the success of Test and Trace that capacity has gone up from 2,000 a month in March to 320,000 a day”, said Johnson. So, er, it is actually the success of the strategy that is causing it to fail so spectacularly.

“We will do more and the world we want to move to as fast as possible is a world in which... everybody can take enabling tests at the beginning of the day, an antigen test, to identify whether or not we have the virus or not,” said Johnson.

“Like a pregnancy test, within 15 minutes or so, so that we know whether we’re able to live our lives as normally as possible.” The PM, of course, is more familiar than most with pregnancy tests, although he has tended to live his life as normally as possible regardless of the result.

Starmer made one slip, claiming the government “still lacks even basic incompetence”, before correcting himself. “I think he was on the money when he said this government lacks incompetence,” said Johnson, whose cabinet includes Gavin Williamson, Robert Jenrick, Lizz Truss and Priti Patel.

Eventually Johnson - wearing a straw of wheat to celebrate the farmers he’s going to screw over in any US trade deal - grew tired of Starmer refusing to ask the first question he’d done even rudimentary preparation for in over a year in office and answered it himself. “The great ox once again has stood on his tongue, he has nothing at all to say about that subject today because he doesn’t want to offend the huge number of his backbenchers who want to overturn the verdict of the people and take us back into the EU, which is of course what he wants to do himself,” he said.

So why didn’t Starmer leap on the obvious? Well, firstly, there is a kernel of truth, for once, in Johnson’s claim that there isn’t a settled view on the Labour benches on the direction of Brexit travel. Secondly, Starmer is introducing himself to the public via the evening news programmes, and he’s better off doing that as the face of competence against Johnson’s coronavirus mishandling than on an issue - the withdrawal agreement - which most people frankly don’t understand.

But thirdly, and most importantly, are the words of Napoleon Bonaparte: never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Elsewhere, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford got a light rebuke for accusing Johnson of lying when he said the internal market bill “represents a very substantial transfer of powers, of sovereignty to Scotland”. Asked to withdraw it by Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, Blackford said: ”It’s on the face of the Bill that the Government of the UK is going to trample over devolution, that is not a lie,” which seemed good enough for Hoyle. If that seemed strange, it was explained immediately afterwards when the speaker let rip his rage at the government for making major policy announcements outside the Commons.

Finally, Kim Johnson (Labour, Liverpool Riverside), rose to ask a question about council housing, accusing the government of wanting a “return to the 1860s”. Jacob Rees-Mogg didn’t seem around to hear it, but he would have nodded approvingly.

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