There was a telling moment early in Prime Minister’s Question when Boris Johnson swivelled round to gee up his backbenchers and, instead of nodding agreement or waving their Order Papers in the time-honoured tradition, the Tories just kept very, very still.
The PM was responding to a call from Sir Keir Starmer to punish airline BA for “rehiring” workers on worse conditions. Mr Johnson argued it was not possible to keep every job exactly the same after the coronavirus pandemic and exhorted the country to “build, build, build”.
He looked around. There were no “yarrr-yarrrs” of agreement. His backbenchers stared ahead, poker faced.
Their nervousness raised an important question: Is the crisis over jobs going to be as powerful in politics as the peak of Covid-19 deaths was in April?
An on-form Starmer was bang on the money when he opened PMQs by listing some of those losses: “BA have announced 12,000 redundancies, Virgin 3,000, EasyJet 1900. If the Government's priority really is to protect jobs, why did the Chancellor not bring forward sector specific deals that could have done precisely that?”
It was a soft ball delivery and Johnson was perhaps too relaxed in his bland reply that “productive conversations” were going on. The PM then glided into Punch & Judy mode by jibing that Labour’s front bench couldn’t make its mind up whether to support Rishi Sunak’s mini-budget. “Last week, the shadow chancellor supported our programme. This week, he says he opposes it. Which is it?”
Starmer was cold as ice. “This is such rhetorical nonsense,” he replied with a stare of studied contempt. Labour backbenchers nodded.
“Since the Chancellor sat down last week around 10,000 people have lost their jobs,” continued the Labour leader. “The Prime Minister should focus on them, not political rhetoric.”
Sir Keir had a case study up his sleeve. BA’s treatment of its staff was “totally unacceptable” and he pulled out an email sent by the PM to BA Staff in June that said firms must not use furlough to “cynically” change terms conditions.
“Will the PM now intervene and make clear that actions like those at BA cannot be allowed to stand without consequences for landing slots,” he demanded.
It was a skilful challenge, turning the PM’s own words against him on an issue of concern to millions of Britons fearful for their incomes.
If the alarm bells were clanging in the heads of Tory backbenchers, the PM seemed chilled, referring to “our great companies”. Workers should be kept in employment “where they possibly can”.
“British Airways and many other companies are in severe difficulties at the moment, and we cannot I'm afraid, simply with a magic wand, ensure that every single job that was being done before the crisis is retained after the crisis.”
This is the point where Mr Johnson looked behind him for support and found his troops wearing poker faces.
Starmer hit the mark again. “The Prime Minister knows exactly what I'm talking about – it is the rehiring of 30,000 people at BA on worse terms and conditions and he should call it out.”
He followed up with a successful gotcha by bringing up a report of the Government advisory group on preparing for a possible winter spike of Covid-19 and flu together. Would the PM implement the report’s recommendations “in full and at speed”.
Johnson waffled that “preparations for a potential new spike” were in train and threw in some boasts about extra doctors and nurses in the NHS.
Starmer pounced on the vague reply, saying he was “surprised” the PM did not commit to fully implementing the report, which included a “significantly expanded” NHS Test and Trace to save lives. What assurances could the PM give?
Johnson summoned Mr Punch to handle the matter. “Once again he [Starmer] attacks the test and trace operation,” he said, affronted. “Instead of knocking the confidence of the country in the test and trace system, now is the time for him to return to his previous script and build it up.”
Accusing Starmer of flip-flopping and inconsistency has been one of the PM’s most effective and sustained attacks in recent weeks. But Starmer did not seem to notice, charging in like a boxer anaesthetised to his opponent’s blows.
“I have to ask in the light of the last few questions, has the Prime Minister actually read this report?” he asked.
“I am of course aware of the report,” blustered the PM, making clear he had not read it , and a silent groan rippled through the ranks behind him.
Mr Punch popped up again to tell Starmer off for “endlessly knocking the confidence of the people of this country”.
Sir Keir, whose voice sometimes slows down to the pace of an hour hand, came back with a torrent of indignant rage. “Standing up every week saying it's a stunning success is kidding no-one,” he spat. The PM should “stand up and say ‘there are problems, and this is what I’m going to do about them’ not this rhetoric about stunning success when it’s obviously not true.”
For his final question, Starmer abruptly switched gear by reading out the words of bereaved families who wanted the Government to learn lessons from the first wave of coronavirus to save lives if there was a second wave.
“So what would the Prime Minister like to say to them,” he ended.
Johnson promised he was doing “absolutely everything in our power” to avoid a second spike but finished, as usual, with a jibe that Starmer was a flip-flopper who kept changing his mind.
“He needs to make up his mind which brief he's going to take today. Because at the moment he’s got more briefs than Calvin Klein.”
Watch video below
It was a good joke – even lawyer Sir Keir allowed the faintest of smiles to play over his lips - and the headline writers will no doubt have fun with it. But Starmer was this week’s clear winner, with an arc of questions that exposed the PM to accusations he was not on top of detail and tested whether Johnson is in tune with Tory backbench concern about job losses.
This latter point matters because the most important audience of weekly PMQs is not the voters at home, nor the writers in the Press Gallery, but the poor bloody infantry ranged behind the party leaders. They’re the ones who have to go out and defend in the real world of marginal seats what the top brass say at Westminster.
An honourable mention goes to Sir Ed Davey, acting Lib Dem leader, who has asked every week for “an immediate public inquiry” into the handling of coronavirus. This week the PM finally confirmed there will be one , saying: “Certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened." Sir Ed looked as surprised as everyone else.