PMQs Review: The one with the damning with faint praise

PUBLISHED: 13:53 10 June 2020 | UPDATED: 15:58 10 June 2020

CHAOTIC: Boris Johnson and his government's inadequate response to the pandemic has served the country poorly. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament.

CHAOTIC: Boris Johnson and his government's inadequate response to the pandemic has served the country poorly. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament.

HOC/JESSICA TAYLOR

Pushed to list Donald Trump’s good qualities, Boris Johnson could only confirm that he is the president of the USA

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First an apology. Last week’s PMQs review may have led the readership to believe that prime minister’s questions was now a water cooler must-watch - not that we’re ever likely to see water coolers again - a fiery battle of political badinage, the centrepiece of our historic parliamentary democracy.

So apologies if you tuned in today hoping for a humdinger and being handed the humdrum. Such is the nature of these things: if the last few sessions of PMQs will have gladdened the hearts of those who enjoy seeing the prime minister squirm, today he will be grateful at emerging with, probably, a 0-0 draw. Although, it should be noted, for the previous five years it has been the leader of the opposition considered to have had a result if he got through six questions without his trousers falling down.

Boris Johnson began with paying tribute to the victims of the Grenfell tragedy, days ahead of its third anniversary. He also congratulated the Duke of Edinburgh on his 99th birthday - and noted it was also the speaker’s. “Same age,” one wag could clearly be heard on their microphone. It wasn’t clear who, but they can expect not to be called to speak anytime soon.

Keir Starmer began his questioning on the numerous reports into racial inequality that the government has commissioned and then left to gather dust in drawers - Johnson insisted they were “getting on with the implementation” - before moving on to coronavirus, pointing out that the number of excess deaths (“an awful phrase”), now stands at more than 63,000. “Last week, the prime minister said he was proud of the government’s record, but there’s no pride in those figures is there?,” he asked.

Johnson responded that “as for what this country did to fight the epidemic, I must say I strongly disagree with the way he characterises it. I think it was an astonishing achievement by the NHS to build the Nightingale hospitals, I think it was an astonishing thing this country came together to drive down, to follow the social distancing rules in spite of all the doubt that was cast on the advice”. As noted before, this is becoming a classic Johnson tactic: any attack on his government’s handling is an attack on the NHS and the British people themselves. The polling suggests it isn’t washing.

The biggest flashpoint came over Starmer’s claim Johnson had rejected his own calls weeks ago to set up a new “national task force” to get schools to reopen.

Johnson said: “Last week he was telling the House that it was not yet safe for kids to go back to school. This week he’s saying that not enough kids are going back to school.” And he then claimed he had contacted Starmer through “a modern device called the telephone”.

Starmer looked as close as Starmer ever does to being angry. “The task force has never been the subject of a conversation between him and me one-to-one or in any other circumstance on the telephone,” he said. “He knows it. So please drop that.”

He added: “It’s no good, the prime minister flailing around trying to blame others.”

Johnson claimed that for Starmer, it was “one brief one day, another brief the next, I understand how the legal profession works.” As indeed he does, having been apparently distracted in the initial phase of the outbreak by thrashing out his divorce deal.

Elsewhere - literally, as she was Zooming in from Scotland - Kirsty Blackman, the SNP’s deputy Westminster leader, spoke of President Trump’s “horrendous” response to the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest and asked Johnson if he still believed the president “has many, many good qualities and, if so, what are they?”. Johnson responded that he was “president of the United States, which is our most important ally in the world today”, which is the very definition of damning with faint praise.

There weren’t even any particularly wretched examples of planted questions from sycophant Tory backbenchers today, although Robert Largan (High Peak) did make a comment about naming a new road in his constituency “the Boris bypass” which even this prime minister couldn’t be bothered rising to.

Finally, Olivia Blake (Labour, Sheffield Hallam), who has the daunting tasks of filling the shoes of political titan Jared O’Mara, rose to say: “Today they say that we are free only to be chained in poverty. Not my words, the words of Bob Marley in 1973.” So, if you’ve ever wondered what Alan Partridge would be like as an MP, at least there was something in today’s session.

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