PMQs sketch: Chaff fills the skies as Keir Starmer’s missiles chase Boris Johnson’s tail
ou can tell the death rate has gone up because Boris Johnson is taking Prime Minister’s Questions seriously again. The cocky asides over his shoulder to Tory backbenchers have gone. Instead, like a fighter pilot with an enemy missile locked on his tail, he spews out headlines like chaff.
Sir Keir Starmer called for 24-hour vaccine centres, something the PM’s spokesman dismissed on Monday as an idea there was “no clamour” for.
Boris yanked the joystick and dived to the left: “We’ll be going to 24/7 as soon as we can,” he declared, adding that full details would follow from Matt Hancock.
If Starmer looked startled, so did Tory MPs. Hadn’t the Health Secretary on ITV only this morning said most people would prefer to be vaccinated in daytime? But the PM knows his trade. His promise announcement led the 24-hour news ticker tape.
Johnson’s next firework was to say that lockdown is working. “The lockdown measures, combined with the Tier 4 measures we had in place, are starting to show some signs of effect,” he told the House. This may well be accurate, but it is not what Hancock said on TV a few hours earlier when he argued it was too early to be certain if the week-old lockdown was bringing the figures down.
Sir Keir kept on firing those pesky questions, and finally Johnson went full “dead cat” by calling his opponent a hypocrite. He told MPs: “His words would be less hypocritical and absurd if it were not for the fact that the…” and then the Speaker cut him off. “I don’t believe anybody is a hypocrite in this chamber,” said Sir Lindsay Hoyle tartly. “I think we need to be a little bit careful about what we’re saying to each other.”
Johnson, beaming, withdrew the allegation of hypocrisy – but kept the charge of “absurdity”. The Tory leader knew exactly what he was doing: Every headline was about the PM getting slapped down by the Speaker, with far less attention on what the PM was seeking to distract from.
In the interests of giving Standard readers the full picture, here are the exchanges that led up to these explosions of prime ministerial chaff.
Starmer began by paying tribute to the vaccine teams, saying it was “really uplifting” to see them at work. We gathered from this that the Opposition Leader is a bit sensitive to the PM’s regular jibe that he “just carps from the sidelines” and wanted to get in some praise for the NHS.
For his main questions, Labour’s leader adopted that deadly quiet voice he uses when he thinks he has missile lock-on. “The last PMQs was on the 16th of December,” he purred, with a serious-faced Johnson listening intently. “The Prime Minister told us then that we were seeing – in his words – a significant reduction in the virus.” A pause here to let MPs reflect on how wrong that optimism had proved to be.
Starmer continued: “He told us that there was no need for endless lockdowns and no need to change the rules about Christmas mixing.
“Since that last PMQs, 17,000 people have died of Covid, 60,000 people have been admitted to hospital and there has been over a million new cases. How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong and why was he so slow to act?”
The Prime Minister was ready with an alibi. “Of course, what (Sir Keir) fails to point out is that on December 18, two days later, the Government was informed of the spread of the new variant,” said Johnson. It wasn’t the Government’s fault, but a mutation “that spreads roughly 50-70 per cent faster”. Yes, the situation was now “very troubling indeed” but he soothed: “We can see the way forward.”
Starmer was sceptical. “The truth is the indicators were all in the wrong direction,” he alleged, though without giving detail to back this up. He opened a new line: the Government’s scientific advisors had warned on December 18th that it was “unlikely” that a November-style lockdowns would control the new variant. Yet the current lockdown was delayed to January 6.
“The Prime Minister sat on his hands for over two weeks, we’re now seeing the tragic consequences of that delay. So how does the Prime Minister justify delaying for 17 days?”
Johnson answered soberly: “I must disagree very profoundly with what he just said.” The PM argued that he had announced “much tougher measures” within 24 hours of being warned about the new variant. Far from sitting on his hands, he had toughened the tier system for most of the country before Christmas.
Pointing to signs that infections might be levelling off, he went on: “We are now seeing the beginnings of some signs that that is starting to have an effect in many parts of the country, but by no means everywhere, and it is early days.”
Johnson threw in that Starmer had been arguing for schools to stay open right up to the day before last week’s hasty announcement of lockdown. “I think it’s a bit much to be attacked for taking tougher measures … when the Labour Party were themselves calling to keep schools open,” he said.
Starmer stepped things up and nailed his own colours to the mast by calling for a stricter set of lockdown restrictions now. He told MPs: “Every time there’s a big decision to take, the Prime Minister gets there late. The next big decision is obvious: The current restrictions are not strong enough to control the virus. Stronger restrictions are needed.”
To Tory MPs shaking their heads, he jibed: “In a week or two, the Prime Minister is likely to be asking Members to vote for this.”
Starmer argued that infection rates, hospital admissions and death rates were all much higher, so “why on earth are restrictions weaker than last month?”
Johnson pointedly did not rule out a tightening (so don’t be surprised if there’s a press conference tomorrow), saying: “We keep things under constant review.” But the PM also stressed that rushing into a deeper lockdown would come at a cost to vulnerable people. “We must take account of that, because nobody can doubt the serious damage that is done by lockdowns to people’s mental health, to jobs, to livelihoods.”
Johnson went on the attack: “To listen to [Starmer] over the last 12 months, you’d think he had absolutely no other policy except to plunge this country into 12 months of lockdown.”
The remaining exchanges moved on to the food parcels dished out to poorer families. The PM called them “disgraceful”, to which Starmer scored a hit by revealing the official Whitehall guidance that told suppliers exactly how few yoghurts and apples to put in each one.
It was a bruising session for the PM, and one where Starmer was in his element as a prosecutor laying out the complex evidence. As Prime MInister, Johnson can write the headlines, but it will be forensic skills that count when the handling of the pandemic goes to a public inquiry, as it inevitably will.