Boris Johnson was twice slapped down by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle as he flung out accusations against Sir Keir Starmer in a furious clash at prime minister’s questions over free school meals and the Covid vaccine programme.
Ordering Johnson to withdraw an allegation of hypocrisy directed at the Labour leader, Hoyle told the prime minister sternly: “We’re tidying up how this parliament behaves”.
And as the PM went on to run through a lengthy denunciation of Starmer’s previous positions, the Speaker cut him short in mid-flow, telling him: “There are questions and sometimes you’ve got to answer the question… I think what I’m going to do now is move on.”
Sir Keir used the first PMQs session of 2021 to accuse the prime minister of being “slow to act” on December’s surge in Covid infections. And he blamed the government’s own guidance to food suppliers for resulting in the meagre portions delivered to children on free school meals during lockdown.
Mr Johnson began his reply by saying: “His words would be less hypocritical and absurd if it were not for the fact that the…”
But he was cut short by Speaker Hoyle, who demanded the withdrawal of the word “hypocritical”.
Hoyle’s patience had already been stretched by Mr Johnson comparing Starmer disparagingly with anti-poverty campaigner and football star Marcus Rashford, who he said was “doing an effective job compared to the Right Honourable Gentleman in holding the government to account”.
But the Speaker was also riled by Starmer’s language, objecting to the way he described an assertion by the prime minister as “just not true”.
Halting Mr Johnson, the Speaker said: “I don’t believe anybody is a hypocrite in this chamber. I think we need to be a little bit careful about what we’re saying to each other.”
And addressing both leaders, he called for better use of language by both.
“There was a ‘not truth’ earlier, and there were also comparisons to others,” said Hoyle.
“Please, let’s keep the discipline in this chamber and the respect for each other. We’re tidying up how this parliament behaves and I certainly expect the leadership of both parties to ensure that takes place.
“Prime minister, would you like to withdraw ‘hypocrisy’?”
Mr Johnson replied: “I am delighted to be advised by you, Mr Speaker, and let me confine my criticism to the absurdity – which I hope is acceptable, Mr Speaker – of (Sir Keir) attacking us over free school meals when it was a Conservative government that instituted free school meals universally, not a Labour government.”
Sir Lindsay later cut off Mr Johnson as he went on a long peroration taking in universal credit, the living wage, the Labour leader’s “lamentable” support for the EU vaccine fund and former backing for Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto pledge to create state-run pharmaceutical firms, rather than answering Starmer’s question.
As often happens at the weekly PMQs sessions, the PM appeared to be taking advantage of the fact that Starmer is limited to six questions and cannot respond to Johnson’s final reply, allowing him to take a free shot at the leader of the opposition.
“Prime minister,” said Hoyle. “There are questions, and sometimes you’ve got to try and answer the question to what was asked of you.
“To run through the history is one thing, but in fairness it is prime minister’s questions.”
Calling another MP to speak without permitting the PM to conclude his reply, the Speaker said: “It was the last question. We’ve lots of others to go through, so I think what I’m going to do now is move on.”
MPs are required to avoid “unparliamentary language” during debates, and the Speaker frequently pulls them up if they suggest that another member of the House is a liar or hypocrite.
There is no official list of language deemed to be unparliamentary, but previous Speakers have objected to brickbats including coward, dodgy, drunk, hooligan, idiot, pipsqueak and rat.