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Fittingly enough, the Speaker began prime minister’s questions with a one-minute silence for Captain Sir Tom Moore and all those who have died of Covid-19. If only the silence had been extended for a further 43 minutes – having started by insisting that the session return from John Bercow’s extended director’s cut to a straightforward half-hour, Lindsay Hoyle is himself showing signs of mission creep – we might all have been better off.
Right now, PMQs feels increasingly redundant. Even as a piece of weekly political theatre it is failing. There was a time when Keir Starmer regularly managed to get under Boris Johnson’s skin, but Boris has long since worked out that he can get by quite easily without answering any questions, and the Labour leader has yet to find a strategy for forcing him to do so. He needs to do so quickly as we have reached a point of stalemate that suits Johnson just fine.
Starmer began with three questions that came nowhere close to resolving whether or not Sage had recommended mandatory quarantine for everyone arriving in the UK. The answer appeared to depend on your definitions; Sage might have said it would be a good idea, but did that count as a proper recommendation? Johnson rather thought not, as the variant virus that everyone but Dido Harding expected much preferred travelling business-class on direct flights but, just to be safe, he chose to muddy the waters first by talking about incoming freight and then implying that almost no one would have been vaccinated if the Labour leader had been in charge. It wasn’t true, but then the truth and the shape-shifting “world king” have never been particularly close acquaintances.
Abandoning the coronavirus as a lost cause for the week, Starmer moved on to all those still living in buildings with dangerous cladding. Here Boris had equally little to say other than that no one should be left with unaffordable costs. He didn’t specify at what level affordable became unaffordable, nor could he explain why his government had done so little, more than three and a half years after the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Rather he just waffled on, before concluding with a general tirade against Keir that the Speaker had to cut short.
The SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, momentarily thought he had Boris on the ropes by quoting a story that No 10 had known there had been a coronavirus outbreak at the vaccine plant in Livingston before he had visited it last week. But Johnson merely ignored him and said he was prime minister of the UK and he would go to places where and when he chose. So there. There’s something about the SNP that always brings out the child in Johnson.
The most interesting exchange came with the DUP’s Ian Paisley. Although Johnson affects to be deeply troubled by the EU having briefly invoked article 16 last week, you get the feeling that secretly he’s thrilled. Because now he has carte blanche to do whatever he likes. To the extent that he sounded as if he couldn’t wait for an excuse to abandon the Northern Ireland protocol that he himself had negotiated little more than a year ago. There again, it’s quite possible that either Boris never fully understood what he had signed up to or that he never had any intention of abiding by it. Or perhaps both.
The Downing Street press conference later in the afternoon started with Johnson again paying tribute to Moore. Almost as if the prime minister was trying to create an association between himself and the late soldier in people’s minds. Perhaps the prime minister has yet to learn the difference between selflessness and selfishness.
Otherwise, this was a briefing at its most meta. One that existed only as dead air to be filled, rather than because there was anything much new to impart. Boris merely repeated that the remarkable milestone of 10m vaccinations had been reached, more or less re-committed himself – with a bit of wriggle room – to giving more information on the reopening of schools in the week of 15 February and promised that Matt Hancock would be providing further details on the so far imaginary plans for hotel quarantine the following day.
What was most remarkable, though, was that – for almost the first time – Boris’s natural gung-ho optimism had given way to something rather more pragmatic. That he had discovered the hard way that the coronavirus couldn’t be pushed around and forced to fit with his government’s timetable. While being cautiously hopeful that the deaths were on a downward curve, for once he didn’t want to overpromise. Maybe time spent close to Chris Whitty hasn’t all been wasted.
“We all knew [the virus] could surge in the autumn and winter months,” he said. At which point, some jaws dropped. After all, Boris had been the prime minister who had said the pandemic would be over by Christmas, had ignored the advice for a circuit-breaker in September, had done his utmost to facilitate a five-day Killathon over Christmas and had introduced a raft of measures to make sure the UK had a world-beating mortality rate.
Still, better late than never, I suppose.
Source: The Guardian
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