PMQs Review: The one with the scrutinised backdrops

PUBLISHED: 14:13 22 April 2020 | UPDATED: 14:33 22 April 2020

MPs conduct prime minister's questions largely by Zoom in the House of Commons (Pic: Parliament)

MPs conduct prime minister's questions largely by Zoom in the House of Commons (Pic: Parliament)

Parliament

Prime minister’s questions returned today - and like the rest of us, MPs were largely forced to do it via Zoom

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MPs Peter Bone, Liz Saville Roberts, Stephen Kinnock and Barry Gardiner speaking via videolink during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire.MPs Peter Bone, Liz Saville Roberts, Stephen Kinnock and Barry Gardiner speaking via videolink during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: House of Commons/PA Wire.

You could be forgiven to expect Hansard to consist largely of ‘Who said that?’, ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch any of that’, ‘You’re breaking up’ and ‘Is that wine? It’s 12pm’. But fortunately, under speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s orders, all but those who were asking a question at any given time was muted.

There were so many other questions too. How would Dominic Raab perform, filling in for the recovering Boris Johnson? What style would Keir Starmer adopt in his first appearance at the despatch box since winning the Labour leadership? And which Zooming MP would appear in front of the most ostentatious bookcase?

To Raab, first. A dead-eyed shark in a suit, a man notable for (1) admitting as Brexit secretary he “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant UK trade in goods was on the Dover-Calais crossing and (2) quitting government in protest at a deal he himself had negotiated, is now in effect at the nation’s tiller.

But he acquitted himself reasonably well, at least in tone, thanking MPs for their questions, reciprocating their goodwill, straight-batting most questions. This felt like a sombre occasion, not a time for Johnsonian showboating.

Starmer, an anthropomorphic Mr Whippy, has already enraged the Corbynite wing of his party this week by, er, wishing the Queen a happy birthday. And he diverged again from his predecessor by asking intelligent, succinct, probing questions. In fact, there was something of the courtroom in the way the pair approached their first set-to, politely being “grateful” for the other’s contribution, focusing on facts. It’s amazing the difference in quality of debate when it’s between two lawyers and not, say, a comic newspaper columnist and the former chair of Haringey Council’s planning committee.

Starmer went in on the logistics of NHS staff being tested for COVID-19, procuring personal protective equipment and taking up offers from British firms. But he cornered Raab early doors when he tackled him on Matt Hancock’s arbitrary, and wildly missed, target on tests for NHS workers.

“The health secretary made a very important commitment to 100,000 tests a day by the end of April, but yesterday the figure for actual tests was 18,000 a day and that was down from Monday, which was 19,000 tests a day,” he said.

Raab attempted to rebut him. “I do have to just correct him,” he said. “Our capacity for tests is now at 40,000 per day, so I think that is an incredibly important milestone.”

But capacity, of course, is a completely different thing to the amount of tests being done.

“The first secretary says that there is capacity for 40,000 tests a day and I think it’s really important that we fully understand what the first secretary just said,” responded Starmer.

“Because that means that the day before yesterday, 40,000 tests could have been carried but only 18,000 tests were actually carried out.”

As I say, lawyerly. At one point, Starmer said “there’s a pattern emerging here - we were slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on protective equipment and now slow to take up these offers from British firms,” and he could well have been addressing a jury.

Still, there was one PMQs tradition that passes down whoever who is taking questions on behalf of the government - the attack on the Welsh Labour government’s handling of the NHS, this time a claim the Welsh health minister had said he was abandoning testing.

Elsewhere in the 45-minute session, Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader appeared alongside two footballs to ask two identical questions about the government introducing a universal basic income, and Raab twice said no.

Disappointingly, Blackford’s footballs were one of the more interesting of backdrop diversions. Sally-Ann Hart (Con, Hastings and Rye) had what appeared to be a framed picture of a cheeseboard, Fay Jones (Con, Brecon and Radnorshire) and Angela Eagle (Labour, Wallasey) both had a lot of books, while Stephen Kinnock (Labour, Aberavon) went rogue by being the only Zooming MP to stand up.

Luke Evans (Con, Bosworth) had a single light switch behind him as he asked a very specific question about zoos. The government would “look after zoos and all the incredible animals they put on display for all of us,” said Raab.

And there was one moment which suggested this virtual parliament idea should become a permanent fixture in the future. The connection of Brexiteer headbanger Peter Bone failed as he was coming to the end of his lengthy question, meaning he was just speaking into the void with nobody else forced to hear him.

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