Hurray! Rowdiness is back at Prime Minister’s Questions. In his great wisdom, Speaker Hoyle opened the doors to let more MPs in the chamber and bring with them the yah-booing, cat-calling, oohing and aaahing that make Wednesdays so much fun.
Somehow the fun faded when Sir Keir Starmer rose to his feet. Did the Prime Minister agree that “the single biggest threat to hitting the June 21 unlocking date is the risk of new variants entering the UK”? Silence. None of his own side yelled support. No Tories were roused to shout him down.
Boris Johnson went through the motions of stepping over the trap laid for him. “I certainly think that is one of the issues that we must face.” Then he waffled for a solid minute about vaccinations doing better in Bolton.
The distinguished prosecutor stood a second time to press home his case. “In those circumstances, why on Monday did the Prime Minister choose to weaken travel restrictions by moving 170 countries or territories to the amber list?” Another silence.
Johnson invented yet another variant on the travel policy on the hoof about going to amber list countries only for “extreme” reasons or emergencies and waffled his way through it. It is fair to say the courtroom was not in a state of uproar.
Sir Keir stood again. It is true that you could have heard a pin drop as he spoke, but only for the wrong reasons. He recited the sheer comedy of the past 24 hours in which ministers Eustice, Bethell and Hart all managed to get their own policy on amber list holidays round their necks. An open goal. A barn door of a target. Fruit suspended so low that it brushed the grass. “The Government has lost control of the messaging,” said Sir Keir, stating the obvious.
Later in the exchanges he hit closer to the Tories’ soft parts by asking why “an island nation” was failing to control its borders. It was all competent and terribly forensic, but the scorers were untroubled.
And then Johnson hit back and gave the audience the blood they had paid to see. “Wouldn’t it be great to hear him … using what authority he possesses to convey the message to the rest of the country?” Ouch! After the local elections and the non-sacking of Angela Rayner, that pre-planned jibe about “what authority he possesses” was brutal. MPs woke up and started yelling happily.
But it was an unscripted jibe that showed Johnson’s killer instincts to the full. Starmer used his last question to seek “extra support and protection to reassure Jewish communities at this really very difficult time” following a series of racist attacks in London. It was a statement intended to distance his party further from the anti-Semitism scandals under Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson started by “sharing his horror” but you could see the cogs whirring internally as the Tory leader calculated how to ruin Starmer’s moment.
“In welcoming his remarks, I must say I think it’s one of the most important changes of attitude, or U-turns I should say, that I’ve seen from the Labour Party in recent times,” said the PM, simultaneously advertising Labour’s embarrassing past and stirring divisions between Sir Keir and the Left wingers glowering behind him. MPs yelled at each other.
Things warmed up as the SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford, appeared by videolink to accuse the Government of “planning to throw our farmers and crofters under the Brexit bus”. A post-Brexit trade deal with Australia “would be the final nail in the coffin” and “end a way of life that has endured for generations” howled Blackford whose questions are unerringly politically savvy.
Johnson hammered back in kind, accusing the Scot of “grossly underestimating” his own country’s ability to thrive outside the EU. The volume in the chamber turned up. As things got back to normal. Hammersmith Labour MP Andy Slaughter raised the case of Jenny McGee, the nurse who saved Johnson’s life last year and who this week quite the NHS in disgust over the one per cent pay offer. Labour MPs bellowed indignation.
Another Labour MP asked where Johnson’s promised social care policy had got to. The PM, enjoying the tumult, said he hoped for Labour would “support us without wibbling and wobbling”.
At the end of the session, Johnson marched off with chest puffed out. Sir Keir had his head down like a cricketer who had failed to score.
The quiet, socially-distanced chamber of the past year was good for Starmer while it lasted. It gave his calm questioning the space to tie Johnson in knots. But in the noisy bearpit that is just beginning to return, Johnson was conspicuously untroubled, which means Labour need to do some rapid rethinking of their tactics.