Leader of the Opposition Questions
Starmer’s first question was about the government’s u-turn on funding Free School Meals during the Summer Holidays following the intervention of Manchester United star, Marcus Rashford. He commended the government for their ‘latest’ u-turn. Highlighting government u-turns is a common tactic that is used to show the government as weak and indecisive. A u-turn on inheritance tax in 2007 sorely hurt Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. However, Starmer then broadened this question out by labeling this a ‘first step’ in the fight against child poverty. He used conclusions from a government report into social mobility that highlighted that child poverty will rise to 5.2 million by 2022. He asked the Prime Minister what he thought caused this.
Johnson said that he was proud that his party set up free school meals (although this was actually a Liberal Democrat policy from within the coalition) and was glad to be supporting families during the COVID-19 crisis. He went on to say that poverty was going down in both relative and real terms under the Conservative Government.
Starmer immediately went back to his quote from the government report which said child poverty had gone up by 600,000. He said that social mobility commission had said that this rise was within the control of the government. At this point, Starmer made a well-timed intervention that “the Prime Minister is chuntering but he might want to listen”. This worked to momentarily portray Johnson as uncaring about child poverty. He also got a laugh from his backbenches when he said “I’m sure the Prime Minister has read the report”. Starmer notes that the commission raised these concerns before the impact of COVID-19, which would inevitably make these concerns worse. He asked what the Prime Minister would do to prevent a rise in child poverty following the outbreak.
Johnson went on the attack saying that he was concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the UK economy. He said that the government had invested heavily in protecting jobs. Notably, he did not focus on child poverty until the end of the answer. Here, he pivoted to schools. This was a tactic he continued throughout the set of questions that was clearly a pre-planned line of defense.
He suggested the best way to help children was to get them back to school and urged the Leader of the Opposition to publicly say that it was safe to return to school.
Starmer said that it was clear the Prime Minister had no idea what the report said before considering the three u-turns the government has taken recently (immigration health charges, MPs voting and free school meals). He called the Prime Minister an expert in changing his brief from week to week. He then turned to the issue of funding for local councils. He challenged the Prime Minister for not fulfilling its promise to support local councils.
Johnson said immediately that the government were paying £3.2 Billion extra to local councils to tackle coronavirus. He then moved onto the fact that Starmer had given no answer to his question over schools.
Starmer started with the age-old Leader of the Opposition retort that if the Prime Minister wanted to ask him questions they should ‘swap places’. It was delivered weakly and with nowhere near the power of David Cameron versus Gordon Brown in 2008:
Starmer highlighted the fact that the Conservative led Local Government Authority said there would be a national shortfall of £10 Billion pounds. He then highlighted a Conservative led council that were calling for more funding from Westminster. He said the PM must have known about these problems for months, so why was he so slow to act.
Johnson said that in addition to the £3.2 Billion being supplied, there were other additional forms of funding that were being diverted to local councils. He gave some specifics, but they added up to nowhere near the £10 Billion the Local Government Authority had called for. He again pivoted to the issue of schools. He then said that it was the unions who were gagging the Prime Minister from telling the truth about school returns. He again challenged Starmer to say that schools were safe to return to.
Starmer the PM returned to the council funding issue. He said he did not think the PM realised how serious this was. He argued that a failure to fund councils would drive up poverty (again linking to his overall theme). Starmer’s final question was incredibly weak, just asking if the PM would “do something”.
This weak question left Johnson free to talk more widely about all the steps the government had taken during the COVID-19 crisis. He again finished by challenging Starmer to say that schools were safe for return.
Starmer again returned to the idea of ‘swapping places’ – it was a weak and repetitive line. Starmer then turned to another “u-turn” on the immigration health surcharge. This is a charge that has to be paid by immigrant doctors and nurses. He said that a number of organisations had been in touch with the PM over this. He asked when the PM would act.
Johnson said he was happy to answer the important question. He said that the anyone who had paid the surcharge since the 21st May will be refunded and that is being processed as quickly as possible. This allowed him to finish of the set of six questions by appearing to be proactive (when, this issue should have been settled weeks ago).
This was always going to be a very difficult PMQs for the Prime Minister. The u-turn on Free School Meals was fresh in the minds of everyone present and it was a policy on which the Conservatives looked out of touch. Yet, again, it was nothing more than a points victory. Starmer in the last three PMQs has used his questions across a range of topics, even if they are linked. Perhaps he would be better pummeling Johnson on one issue when he appears to be on the ropes. Starmer’s fifth question is an example of a weak question at just the time he should have been pressing the Prime Minister.
SNP Leader Questions:
Blackford started by saying Marcus Rashford had shown more moral force in tackling poverty in a few days than the Conservative Government had shown in a decade. He referred to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children that showed 6 in 10 families were borrowing money and over 5 and 10 were falling behind on bills. He said that an £20 a week would prevent families from choosing between paying their bills or feeding that children. He asked the PM to uplift universal credit by this amount.
Johnson responded by saying the government had done everything in his power and universal credit had already been uplifted significantly. However, the government stood ready to do more.
Blackford then simply repeated his question, with an added focus on ten years of Conservative austerity. He criticised the PM for allocated money at this time to a VIP plane for his official business. He asked again if he won’t find £20 to help families struggling to survive.
Again, Johnson was able to repeat his first answer, which was rehearsed and deployed relatively effectively.
Blackford again appeared weak. His first question was strong, but, as has become common, there is no cohernent follow-up question. The SNP are renowned as the loudest group of MPs in the Commons. Blackford certainly misses the power of their voices behind him. It was another win for Johnson vs. Blackford, who made little mark on the PM.
Best Backbench Question:
Edward Davey (Acting Liberal Democrat Leader) again asked one of the best ‘backbench’ questions. It is amazing to think that his question was the only one about Brexit in the whole session. He asked the PM to consider, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether an extension to the transition period is in order. He asked Johnson to put the economy before his Brexit ideology.
Johnson responded by saying he thought the people were keen to get Brexit done. He also thought that Brexit provided huge opportunities. It was an expected response, but it lacked substance as clearly a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster.
Most Cringeworthy Backbench Question:
Conservative Backbench MP Selaine Saxby asked a question about broadband infrastructure and business rates. The response from the PM was suspiciously specific, as he confirmed 100% business rate relief on fibre investment. The grin on of Saxby’s face following the question hinted that the PM knew exactly was was coming.
Saxby: “Coronavirus has underlined the importance of improving broadband infrastructure. Does the Prime Minister agree that extending the existing relief on business rates for new full-fibre infrastructure could see the release of the investment we need to level up rural areas such as North Devon? Will he thank telecommunications workers for their efforts during the pandemic?”
Prime Minister: “My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have provided 100% business rate relief for all new fibre investment. I am very happy to join her in thanking telecommunications workers for their amazing work. Many of them have kept going throughout the pandemic to put in that broadband infrastructure. I thank them with her.”