PMQs sketch: What on earth has happened to Boris Johnson's nous?

·6-min read

Boris Johnson looked utterly furious for much of Prime Minister’s Questions. The hair that was smoothed down for yesterday’s restrained press conference had gone wild overnight. At times he glared at the Opposition benches, where the excited natives taunted him with glee.

Even that cold-blooded prosecutor Sir Keir Starmer seemed to be infected with Andy Burnham’s pavement rhetoric, accusing the PM of being “miserly” and “grubby” towards the northern regions.

What on earth has happened to the Prime Minister’s nous? The PM who, as he keeps reminding us, sploshed out an eye-watering, jaw-dropping and vertigo-inducing sum of £200 billion on Covid-19 support for families and businesses had landed on his back foot for the sake of a measly £5 million - the paltry amount saved by offering Burnham a take-it-or-leave-it £60 million instead of the £65 million in pandemic support that the chippy Manchester mayor demanded.

If that false economy was not bad enough, the Tory leader also passed up a chance during PMQs to promise that free school meals will carry on into half term, as demanded by footballer Marcus Rashford MBE. (The U-turn on this particular act of cheese-paring is surely only a matter of timing .)

Watch: Boris Johnson announces £60m offer to Manchester boroughs

The upshot was that PMQs consisted mainly of the PM looking cross as he was berated over “hungry children”, “cuts” and “punishing businesses”.

So, Sir Keir had the luxury of six shots at the goalmouth, with a goalie who was off his peak. Labour’s leader took a run up: “How does an area which goes into Tier 3 restrictions get out of those restrictions.” And he sat down.

Johnson paused, sensing a trap. The simplest way out, he said, was the get the R rate down to one or below.

Starmer looked pleased and asked: Were there “any circumstances” in which an area could come out if the R rate was above one?

Johnson refrained from giving the obvious answer, which is that he and Cummings usually make the rules up as they go along. “We'll take a decision based on a number of things,” he offered, not just the R rate, but hospital admissions “and other data”.

Sir Keir rose with a gotcha look on his face. “Mr Speaker, I’m now confused by the Prime Minister’s answer,” he began. “If it’s not [getting] the R rate under one, what is it? Millions of people in Tier 3 really need to know!” Perhaps at the Old Bailey this would have induced gasps of breath and cries of “send him down”, but in the chamber it fell flat. Sir Keir had to explain: chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance had admitted that Tier 3 measures were not enough on their own to bring the R rate down, which meant, argued Starmer, that Tier 3 may be “the worst of all worlds” offering “months and months of agony” but no exit.

The goalie caught the ball mid-air by claiming that some areas were “already making progress”, then hoofed it back at Sir Keir’s head. “It’s a bit incoherent of him to attack a local lockdown when he wants to plunge the whole country into a damaging lockdown – and he hasn’t a clue about how he would get the country out of that, does he?” This was a reference to Sir Keir’s call for a national “circuit breaker” lockdown starting at half term and it is currently the biggest gap between the two front benches.

Keir Starmer accused the PM of being “miserly” and “grubby” towards the northern regions (AFP via Getty Images)
Keir Starmer accused the PM of being “miserly” and “grubby” towards the northern regions (AFP via Getty Images)

Sir Keir scoffed that nobody would believe the PM could remove an area from Tier 3 if cases and admissions were rising. “I don’t think so!” he sneered. He said the reality of the PM’s imposition of T3 in Manchester was that thousands of workers would be out of work after Friday with no respite in sight. Going the full Burnham, he went on: “Stop bargaining with people’s lives and depriving communities and provide the support that's needed in Manchester.”

For some reason, Johnson thought it a good idea to name six Manchester area Tory MPs who had backed his decision to send Mr Burnham packing. You could almost sense the unlucky backbenchers shrinking into their seats.

Starmer had some terrific attack lines for his final three questions. He said the PM had found £43 million “for a garden bridge that was never built but he can't find £5 million for the people of Greater Manchester” and scorned: "I really think the Prime Minister has crossed a Rubicon here, not just with the miserly way that he's treated Greater Manchester, but the grubby 'take it or leave it' way these local deals are being done. It's corrosive to public trust to pit region against region, mayor against mayor, council against council, asking them to trade away their businesses and jobs."

But mixed with these belters, Starmer also babbled away again about the R rate and Tier 3, as though embarrassed to get his hands dirty with a political attack without a glaze of prosecutorial argument.

Johnson focused his fire on Starmer’s call for a national lockdown that would “turn out the lights” for every region. "I think it's the height of absurdity that he stands up and attacks the economic consequences of the measures we're obliged to take across some parts of the country, when he wants to turn the lights out with a full national lockdown.”

Starmer finished by saying the Government had been too slow to implement the first lockdown in March. “He's being too slow again, we cannot repeat this mistake. Will he act in the public interest and take the opportunity to put in place a circuit break this Friday?"

Boris Johnson looked utterly furious for most of PMQs(Sky News)
Boris Johnson looked utterly furious for most of PMQs(Sky News)

Johnson refused, asserting that Starmer’s approach “would involve closing schools, it would involve shuttering businesses with all the psychological, emotional damage that lockdown of that kind brings". In fact, the circuit breaker idea is supposed to keep schools open.

There was no score at the end of today’s exchanges. That will come when in 28 days or so when the Tier 3 areas are up for review. If the R rate is down, and Vallance shown up as a gloomster, then Johnson will claim victory and say that Sir Keir would have needlessly harmed millions of businesses across the country. But if the pandemic fails to respond to the PM’s localised prescriptions, Starmer will say the PM made the wrong calls.

The stakes are high for both leaders.

Watch: What is a budget deficit?

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