PMQs: Inappropriate gags fall flat as Johnson squirms

Familiar crossfire as Prime Minister and Labour leader do battle across the Commons.

PMQs: Inappropriate gags fall flat as Johnson squirms Getty Images

The longer the political fallout of the pandemic lasts the more I have a sense that I have heard a lot of the crossfire before and so it was today at Prime Minster’s Questions.

Jobs, furlough, track and trace, care home workers, they all got a mention.

The Prime Minister now has a standard routine for dealing with the pointed questions of the leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer.

He now accuses Starmer of flip-flopping on issues every week. As if to punch home the point, this is done with an agitated delivery and a grab for rhetorical flourish.

The problem with Johnson’s rhetorical flourishes is that they are often misjudged. He gives the impression of a man who rises to the dispatch box with one eye on answering the question and another on a polished putdown. The end result is often a cross-eyed quest for an answer.

Some of these putdowns are of course rehearsed in the pre-PMQs run-through in front of the Downing Street bathroom mirror.

Today his pre-rehearsed line jarred as this observer winced at the inappropriateness of it all.

He accused Starmer of coming to the chamber every week with contradictory lines of attack. In a nod to his legal background he said that Starmer “had more briefs than Calvin Klein”.

It no doubt sounded good during the morning shave and probably evinced a prime ministerial chuckle with the cleverness of it all.

Unfortunately he deployed the line in reply to a question from Starmer wanting to know what he would say to the families of those bereaved by Covid. Starmer is due to meet the Bereaved Families for Justice group this afternoon

Not content to juxtapose grief with a joke about underwear, Johnson asked for a message to be conveyed to the families through the Labour leader. I did ask, why is he not meeting these families himself?

Starmer had merely asked: “What would he say to these families?” It is frequently the most innocuous of questions that grease Johnson’s path with banana skins.

Another bit of debris from the Chiquita barrel came when Starmer quoted a report published yesterday on potential deaths from a second spike. The Labour leader simply asked: “Have you read it?”

“I am aware of it,” came the reply. Every onlooker thought ‘we will take that as a no’.

The Starmer-Johnson jousts are now predictable. It is a weekly exercise in a specific question being met with an attack on Starmer’s opportunism.

Unruffled, Starmer wears a face of headmasterly disapproval and then asks a question you think is too simple for such a grave issue as that under discussion. It has the intended effect. The PM squints in an awkwardness which asks, ‘what is he up to now?’.

When the bear pit once again returns to full capacity it will be interesting to see if the dynamics of these exchanges change. I suspect they will and to Starmer’s detriment, as the Commons at full volume is as far removed from the atmosphere of lawyerly cross-examination as it is possible to get.

Sir Ed Davey came back to the theme of a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic. Too soon, said the PM. But you supported a public inquiry into the Iraq war weeks after it started, according to the acting Lib Dem leader. The PM squinted again as if to say ‘did I?’.

There will be an inquiry, conceded Johnson, whilst not being drawn too much on the specifics.

Ian Blackford of the SNP used his two questions to allege that the Prime Minister was about to undermine Holyrood with the biggest power grab since devolution. This was a reference to the new powers landscape to emerge from Brexit.

They traded barbs on a new subject. It was a familiar question and familiar answer.

Back to déjà vu. I checked the date. Yes it really was the July 15. I was not dreaming an episode of PMQs during the interminable Brexit rammies.

On the subject of the ‘power grab’ it really will be a case of déjà vu all over again as we will hear a lot about this in the months ahead.