Leader of the Opposition Questions
Starmer started by voicing his concern at the events in the US, something that noticeably the PM failed to do when he first took to the dispatch box. Starmer’s first question was clever, playing on a public perception (whether right of wrong) that Boris Johnson is lazy and doing little in government.
Johnson’s response of the George Floyd issue was relatively strong. Johnson’s response was sound, saying that he takes full responsible for everything that happens in government and he is proud of what the government has achieved so far and says there should be more cooperation between parties.
Starmer seized the initiative with his second question, telling the PM that he had written to him confidentially two weeks ago, but there has yet to be any reply. By focusing his question on public trust, he continued a theme that is being played out in the media.
Johnson’s response criticized the premise of the question and said he made a phone-call to Starmer, in lieu of writing. He says that the vast majority of people want clarity across the spectrum. This was clearly an attack on Labour by claiming Starmer is trying to distract the electorate.
Starmer starts question three by saying he will put the letter in the public domain. Starmer focused on the PM’s promise to have a ‘track and trace’ operation that would be world beating by June 1st. Starmer said the lack of this facility stops local areas responding to local outbreaks – quoting a council who says they are not prepared. He asked the PM why he made a promise he knew he could not fulfill.
Johnson’s response was to claim the system in place was doing well considering it started from scratch. Johnson says that at the moment thousands of people have been informed under track and trace. This point is undermined by the lack of specifics in the PM’s response.
Starmer immediately focuses on the fact that the PM did not place a number on those being traced. He immediately uses specific figures from the ONS in making his new point – in itself highlighting the weakness in Johnson’s response. He also focuses on the criticisms this week of the Government by the UK statistics authority, which again plays into his attack line on the issue of trust.
Johnson’s response is to go heavily on the defensive, clearly indicating that Starmer is focusing on political point scoring rather than playing a constructive role in dealing with the crisis. He defends the Government’s record on testing, arguing Starmer should pay tribute to the many people working on the system – again, implicitly accusing Starmer of politicising the crisis.
Starmer is quick off the mark, saying the PM ‘is confusing scrutiny for attacks’. He says he has supported the the government. He then focuses on the issue of transparency, pointing out the alert system had not been properly followed.
Johnson’s response was ferocious in his response. He says the government have met their five tests for considering relaxations and again goes onto focus on the idea that Starmer is playing politics at a time of national crisis.
Starmer was deliberately calm in his response, saying he has supported the government where he thought support was due. He uses his final question to turn to the issue of Parliament. He focuses on the fact that some members were unable to vote in Parliament yesterday, calling this “shameful”. He pointed out that if an employer behaved this way they it would unlawful under the Equality Act (2010). He urged the PM to stop this and allow electronic voting.
Johnson’s response was to focus on the fact that ordinary people across the country are having to queue, so why should MPs be any different. He says that those who are vulnerable should be able to vote by proxy. He finishes by stating that he believes the public want Parliament back at work.
PMQ’s is still not back to normal, with social distancing in place within the chamber. The usual baying of backbenchers is noticeably absent and the atmosphere was generally more calm. However, that did not dampen the exchanges between the PM and Leader of the Opposition, which were heated at times. Starmer emerged the winner, focusing on the lack of transparency and trust in the government. Yet, it was a limited victory, he did not do enough to put Johnson on the ropes. The lines of attack have been clearly drawn. Labour are focusing on trust while the Conservatives are responding by saying Labour are making political capital out of a national crisis.
SNP Leader Questions:
Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster Leader, focused on the US President’s behavior over the protests in America, saying that we are witnessing “a dangerous slide into autocracy”. He stated that the UK Government had offered no comments on the death of George Floyd and asked what representations he had made to the US Government.
Johnson responded by saying he understood the anger in the US and across the world. He said he respected the right to protest, but said it should be done within the law. Notably, he failed to answer the question at all.
Blackford noted the PM did not answer the question and said the UK would be hypocritical if he did not make representations. He noted that the UK exports riot equipment to the US, including tear gas. He asked whether the PM would review the export of these items.
Johnson said he was happy to look into any complaints and that all exports are conducted with guidance in mind.
Blackford was the clear winner. Johnson refused to answer the first question and gave a meagre response to the second. The PM of course has to tread carefully with these questions. He is aware of the volatility of President Trump and knows he needs a trade deal with the US.
Best Backbench Question:
Theresa May (Conservative, Maidenhead)
With almost every other question being about COVID-19, Theresa May asked an important question about the arrangements for information sharing between the EU and the UK going forward. The PM could not give a response, because it depends on the deal reached with the EU. The UK will still leave with no-deal on the 31st December as things stand.
Most Cringeworthy Backbench Question:
Scott Benton (Conservative, Blackpool South)
A clearly scripted question to set up the PM for telling the House how much he is spending on local communities:
Question. In the past few weeks, Blackpool has been inundated with visitors, and the images of people not social distancing and leaving our beach strewn with litter have angered my constituents, at a time when they are doing the right thing and following the Government’s advice. The fact that Blackpool has one of the highest local infection rates in the nation has only served to heighten these fears. What assistance are the Government providing to areas such as Blackpool to deal with the influx of visitors, at a time when local services are already under pressure?
Response: My hon. Friend well represents Blackpool and his constituents, sticking up for the interests of Blackpool. In addition to the £3.2 billion we are already giving to local councils to help combat corona, Blackpool is receiving another £9 million, as well as the funding from the high street funds and the town fund to deal with the particular problems he rightly identifies.