PMQs Review: The one with the greatest hits revival

PUBLISHED: 13:49 20 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:32 20 May 2020

Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire

Boris Johnson speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire

After a coupling of bruising weeks for Boris Johnson at the hands of Keir Starmer, today the PM reached for his old catchphrases

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Germany’s Bundesliga resumed at the weekend, with no crowds, a strict limit on who could enter the stadia and an ensuring eery atmosphere. Geisterspiel, the Germans call it. But when the whistle went social distancing went out of the window and the players went at it full pelt, delighting a football-starved globe.

With a similar sight of ranks of empty benches and the lack of boorish Tory backbenchers cheering his every rhetorical flourish, Boris Johnson has floundered in the past couple of weeks as Keir Starmer slowly, rhythmically dissected the government’s lack of Covid preparedness. But today, perhaps inspired by those Geisterspiele, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s absurd suggestion of putting MPs in plastic boxes not flying, Johnson too attempted to ignore the empty stadium and play on regardless. The result was perhaps a less comprehensive defeat, at least in the eyes of his supporters.

The catchphrases returned. The call-and-response shouts of “40 new hospitals” and “50,000 new nurses” (now joined with a promise of 25,000 new track-and-tracers tracking 10,000 new cases a day).

There was a return to his old Trumpian tactic, previously employed with Jeremy Corbyn, of questioning why the leader of the opposition wouldn’t simply say what a terrific job the government was doing. Asked by Starmer about the numbers of patients initially being returned to care homes without being tested for coronavirus, the prime minister boasted that the number of deaths in care homes had come down by 31% in the past week “and I think he should pay tribute to all those who have helped fight that epidemic across the NHS and our local services”.

And, just to show Johnson was edging back to normality, a perfectly valid and important question from SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford about foreign NHS workers on the frontline of the pandemic still being forced to pay for their own treatment (“a purely ideological immigration policy with no basis in fairness or economics”) was dismissed with an irrelevant reminder that the SNP wanted “a border at Berwick”. That would have got a cheer in normal times, you could see his brain whirr. (An aside: Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was caught on mic saying “he’s rather dark today” as Blackford appeared, apparently from a downstairs cupboard).

Starmer also asked about the immigration health surcharge. with Johnson rejecting any change.

“I’ve thought a great deal about this and I do accept and understand the difficulties faced by our amazing NHS staff and, like him, I’ve been a personal beneficiary of carers who have come from abroad and, frankly, saved my life,” he said.

“On the other hand we must look at the realities - this is a great national service, it’s a national institution, it needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about £900m, and it’s very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources.”

TL;DR: on the one hand, they saved my life, on the other hand, f*** ‘em.

Starmer said he was “disappointed” as the PM knows “how raw” the issue is, adding the surcharge is currently £400 a year and will increase to £624 from October. “For a care worker on the national living wage that will require working for 70 hours to pay off the fee,” he said.

Meanwhile, health secretary Matt Hancock got threatened with being thrown out by Hoyle as he hectored Starmer, Ed Balls style. “Sorry, do you want to leave the chamber?,” said Hoyle, going full-on pub doorman. “We’re on maximum numbers, so if you want to give way to somebody else I’m more than happy.” Hancock should watch his tone.

Finally SNP MP Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) asked Johnson whether he approved of the Scotland secretary Alister Jack making “a round-trip of almost 700 miles” to the Commons against the “Stay Home” advice of the Scottish Government. “Condemn or condone, prime minister?,” he asked.

“All I can say is no. I won’t,” replied Johnson. “I think the secretary of state for Scotland does an admirable job.” What amounted to the ranks behind him cheered. They’re the real heroes, the Tory MPs making the journey to London against all health advice to support the beleaguered prime minister. Why aren’t people clapping them?

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