It’s not what he asked. It’s what he didn’t ask. Here was a distinguished lawyer-MP, someone who has literally upheld the rule of law as DPP, facing a PM who openly plans to rip up international law. Surely Sir Keir could not resist?
Instead, Sir Keir began: “Yesterday I spoke to a mum who lives in London, She’s got a four year old daughter, who had a very high temperature yesterday morning. She dialled 111.”
Johnson was dismayed. Sir Keir, he realised, was not going to fall into the trap of banging on about impenetrable stuff about Brexit and the Rule of Law.
Starmer carried on with his tale, in which the mum tried to get a coronavirus test and was eventually referred to a test centre in faraway Swansea. “This is frankly ridiculous,” he cried. “Who does the Prime Minister think is responsible for this?”
Job done. A soundbite on the evening news on a topic that ordinary folk are affected by, the fiasco of Test & Trace. And even a Mrs Merton-style bit of sarcasm at the bloke in charge.
The Prime Minister scuttled for the moral high ground. “I take responsibility, I have done throughout the entire handling of the coronavirus crisis.” It didn’t last long. “But I would just say to those who attack NHS Test & Trace and those who deprecate the efforts of the people who are doing their level best to keeping up to keep us safe.”
Only in the Westminster bear pit could it be seriously suggested that Sir Keir was denigrating anyone but the PM himself. Tory MPs could barely be bothered to hear-hear their leader.
Things soon descended into yah-booery on both sides. Starmer pointed out that the director of T&T was admitting to capacity being used up, while Health Secretary Matt Hancock (more of him later) was “blaming” members of the public who took tests when not displaying Covid symptoms. Who was right, he demanded, pretending they were contradictory. Johnson challenged Starmer to withdraw a claim that testing was “on the verge of collapse”.
Starmer dipped into his postbag again to find more punters who could not get a test. “What is happening?” he appealed, as if to the heavens. Johnson tut-tutted that Starmer was running down staff who were “doing a heroic job” and would have liked “some praise and encouragement”.
It got a bit Groundhoggish after that. Starmer badgered on about the failings; the PM accused him of “undermining confidence”; Starmer said it was the PM who was undermining confidence. The PM’s best moment was when the Labour leader scored a minor own goal by fluffing his lines and saying the Government “lacks incompetence”. Johnson gloated this was “on the money”.
Interesting to note that Johnson honed his jibes at Starmer for being a serial ducker of decisions, saying he “sits on the sidelines and carps”.
But Starmer has grown a thick skin after barely five months in the job of Opposition Leader, and his six questions re-trod the same ground relentlessly, without ever mentioning the minor matter of international law being ripped to shreds.
Eventually, the PM brought up the subject himself, claiming Sir Keir was silent on the matter because he was a disaffected Remoaner. “He is totally silent on this .... a great ox once again stood on his tongue ... he has nothing at all to say about that subject today, because he doesn’t want to offend the huge number of his backbenchers who want to overturn the verdict of the people, and take us back into the EU, which is of course what he wants to do himself.”
The real fun came at the very end in Points of Order when MPs asked why the Government’s clampdown on parties, which was revealed in the Standard yesterday, had not been announced by the Health Secretary on the floor of the House.
Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was not happy. “Timings for statements are known to ministers,” ruled the Speaker. “It’s really not good enough for the government to make decisions of this kind in a way which shows insufficient regard the importance of major policy announcements being made firstly to this House wherever possible.”
Perhaps unfortunately for Matt Hancock, Johnson sat listening with a big grin across his face, plainly enjoying the rollicking for a former leadership rival.
A sharper note entered the Speaker’s voice. Was he riled by the PM’s grin? Hoyle revealed he had written to Hancock and expected the minister to come and apologise to Members of the House.
It got worse for Hancock. After Johnson walked out of the Chamber the Speaker got even crosser and threatened to drag the hapless Heath Secretary every day to the Commons to answer Urgent Questions (UQs) from the Opposition. “Let me say, if this minister wants to run this chamber ragged, I can assure you now a UQ every day might just begin to run him ragged!”
Strangely enough, this statement seemed to unite both Tory and Labour MPs in delighted approval. There’s nothing like a warm glass of schadenfreude to cheer up MPs.
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