“I wish to make a statement,” announced Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle. KLAXON! MPs perked up. “… about this House’s scrutiny of delegated powers during the pandemic,” Hoyle continued. INCOMING, INCOMING. This could only mean one thing, the Speaker was about to let rip.
He did not disappoint. For three minutes Mr Speaker ripped into the Prime Minister’s habit of imposing Draconian laws and fines by decree since Covid-19 arrived.
“Unconvincing”, charged the Speaker, “shows a total disregard for the House”, “totally unsatisfactory”, “completely unsatisfactory”, “contempt”. All this delivered in a rich Lancashire baritone with an unusual hard edge to it.
Were Johnson’s ears burning? Probably not. The only bit he would have taken to heart was Sir Lindsay’s decision that the “Brady Amendment” will not be put to a vote, meaning that the PM sidestepped a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own MPs. The number of Tory rebels was more than adequate to overturn Johnson’s freshly minted majority of 80.
But ministers like Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson and Alok Sharma had their own reasons to tremble inwardly as the Speaker made clear he will make their lives sheer hell if the Government fails to change its ways.
“I will give very sympathetic considering to applications for urgent questions or emergency debates,” said Hoyle. There was a slight pause before “very”, just to make the threat clear: Ministers can expect to be dragged day and night in front of the House to explain themselves like naughty children to backbenchers. The House was being given permission to assert its authority over the executive like never before.
“I am now looking to the government to rebuild the trust with this House and not treat it with the contempt that it has shown,” concluded the Speaker. Job done. Now back to the scheduled programme, Prime Minister’s Questions.
Starmer did not pick on the Speaker’s words, which was a pity. Instead he asked why only one of the 48 areas put into local lockdown, Luton, had had restrictions subsequently lifted. Why?
Johnson replied that there was “a serious and growing problem with the resurgence of the virus” which is why the latest tranche of Covid crackdown laws was needed.
Answering Starmer’s question, the PM said Luton had successfully “pulled together to depress the virus” which implied that other areas hadn’t obeyed the rules.
Sir Keir reminded MPs that Johnson had called local lockdowns “a whack a mole strategy” and mocked: “That implies that at some stage the mole goes down and those lockdown restrictions are lifted.” Instead, he went on, restrictions had been in place for months in towns like Bradford, Bury and Oldham, while infection rates were going up. “What is the plan?” he demanded.
The Great Dictator and Ruler By Fiat explained sympathetically that “nobody wants to impose restrictions of this kind” but “frankly, when you have the virus going up you have to take strong local action… in addition to the strong national measures we announced last weekend.”
So far, Starmer had bowled two easy balls that had merely given the Prime Minister a relaxed moment to emote with the public while emphasising the need for those same strong measures by the Government that the Speaker had referred to.
Starmer moved on to the confusion over the blizzard of rules. Johnson’s own gaffe in getting the rules wrong “didn’t come as a surprise to me”, jibed the Opposition leader before quoting a Tory council leader who thought it was all “too complex, too complicated”.
“If the Prime Minister doesn't understand the rules and his own council leaders have complained about mixed messages, how does the Prime Minister expect the rest of the country to understand and follow the rules?”
A reasonably good joke but too weak for the occasion. Johnson, having started on the back foot, was now up and charging at Starmer like a bull elephant bearing down on a hunter who unwisely took aim with a pea shooter.
"Actually, I think that the people of this country do understand and overwhelmingly do follow the rules, and that I may say is in spite of the efforts of (Starmer) continually to try to snipe from the sidelines, to undermine what we are trying to do.”
Sir Keir asked why the Government has deemed that hospitality jobs “aren't worth saving", arguing that the new Jobs Support Scheme marked a big withdrawal of financial support compared to furloughing which ends in a month. He quoted from the owner of a wedding venue business who was having to lay off workers.
“These are viable jobs,” said Starmer. “These businesses are doing the right thing. Why has the Government decided that these jobs aren't worth saving?"
Johnson said he "feels" for the business owner but insisted: "The best way forward is for him and all other businesses in the country is if we all pull together now, get the virus down, keep the economy moving." Starmer snapped back that Johnson was displaying “a tin ear” for people facing unemployment by Christmas. Labour’s leader sat down having failed to draw blood, despite the PM looking in trouble before the contest.
Johnson ended with a typical shin-kicker, reminding Starmer he backed the Government’s measures last week. "One day they're theoretically marching side by side with the rest of us trying to defeat coronavirus, the next minute they're off in the undergrowth firing from the sidelines,” said the PM.
There was only one winner from today’s exchanges. After Sir Lindsay’s bombshell intervention, the public climb-down by the Government on allowing proper votes on coronavirus measures was inevitable.
Poor old Hancock was being lined up to eat extra helpings of humble pie on the PM’s behalf at the Dispatch Box at 3pm. This is ironic because the Health Secretary, as rebel leader Sir Graham Brady told this paper, had been “constructive” in private from the start. It’s an unfair world, as wedding venue staff know better than anyone.