Johnson under fire over devolution comments and Covid contracts during PMQs

By Richard Wheeler, Sophie Morris and Elizabeth Arnold, PA Political Staff
·4-min read

Boris Johnson was labelled the “single biggest threat” to the UK and came under fire over Covid-19 contracts as he responded to Prime Minister’s Questions from self-isolation.

The Prime Minister appeared on television screens in the House of Commons chamber after being confined to Downing Street following contact with Tory MP Lee Anderson, who tested positive for coronavirus.

Sir Keir Starmer was in his usual seat in the chamber as he asked why Mr Johnson had said Scottish devolution was “a disaster”, before raising further concerns over how taxpayers’ cash has been spent on securing vital equipment during the pandemic.

The Labour leader demanded a “cast-iron” assurance from Mr Johnson that future Government contracts would be subject to the proper processes.

His remarks came after the National Audit Office (NAO) found a lack of transparency around some of the key decisions taken as £18 billion of coronavirus contracts were awarded by the end of July.

Mr Johnson responded by labelling Sir Keir “Captain Hindsight”, and defended the Government’s efforts to secure personal protective equipment (PPE).

Opening Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir described devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as “one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government” as he pressed Mr Johnson on his comments.

The Prime Minister replied: “I think what has unquestionably been a disaster is the way in which the Scottish National Party have taken and used devolution as means not to improve the lives of their constituents, not to address their health concerns, not to improve education in Scotland, but constantly – and I know this is actually a point of view that is shared by (Sir Keir) – but constantly to campaign for the break-up of our country.

“To turn devolution, otherwise a sound policy for which I myself personally benefited when I was running London, but turn devolution into a mission to break up the UK.

“That, in my view, would be a disaster.”

Sir Keir countered that “the single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom is the Prime Minister every time he opens his mouth”.

He continued: “When the Prime Minister said he wanted to take back control nobody thought he meant from the Scottish people. The Prime Minister’s quote is very clear – he said devolution has been a disaster north of the border.”

Sir Keir Starmer
Sir Keir Starmer was in the Commons chamber as normal for PMQs (House of Commons/PA)

Turning to Covid-19, Sir Keir accused the Government of not paying people enough to isolate properly.

He added: “We learnt this week they can find £21 million of taxpayers’ money to pay a go-between to deliver lucrative contracts to the Department of Health.

“I remind the Prime Minister that a few weeks ago he couldn’t find that amount of money for free school meals for kids over half-term.

“Does the Prime Minister think that £21 million for a middle man was an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money?”

Mr Johnson said Sir Keir initially urged for the removal of “blockages” in the procurement process to secure PPE, adding: “We were facing a very difficult situation where across the world there was not adequate supplies of PPE. Nobody had enough PPE.

“We shifted heaven and earth to get 32 billion items of PPE into this country. I’m very proud of what has been achieved.”

Mr Johnson said 70% of PPE is capable of being made in the UK now, although Sir Keir noted: “This week he is effectively defending the paying of £21 million on a contract with no oversight.”

Prime Minister’s Questions
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks during a PMQs session which saw Boris Johnson answer questions from self-isolation in Downing Street (House of Commons/PA)

Sir Keir pressed further on Covid-19 contracts and highlighted the NAO report, adding £10.5 billion of contracts were handed out without competitive tender and “suppliers with political connections were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts”.

He said: “Can the Prime Minister give a cast-iron assurance that from now on all Government contracts will be subject to proper process, with full transparency and accountability?”

Mr Johnson replied: “All Government contracts are, of course, going to be published in a due way and are already being published.”

The Prime Minister criticised Sir Keir’s remarks, thanked suppliers and highlighted recommendations from Labour which, he said, included a football agent seeking to supply ventilators.

He went on: “It is absolutely absurd Captain Hindsight is now once again trying to score party political points by attacking us for moving too fast.”

Wednesday’s session was the first time the Prime Minister has answered questions using video conferencing software Zoom. His virtual participation came despite a negative test for coronavirus.

Downing Street later said Mr Johnson communicated to the Commons from “a room off his office” in No 10, but stressed he did not come into contact with any staff on his journey to it.