Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Puritans try to smash Johnson’s images

23 Sep

Planet Fact takes on Planet Freedom. Sir Keir Starmer’s questions are evidence-based, utilitarian, grown-up, serious and underlain by the conviction that this is the only moral way to do politics.

Boris Johnson’s answers are imaginative, irreverent, disdainful of inconvenient facts and underlain by the conviction that this is the only tolerable way to do politics.

Sir Keir gives us the world as it is. Johnson responds with the world as we might wish it to be.

The Leader of the Opposition pointed out a clear contradiction between the Prime Minister’s declaration three months ago that “test and trace can be a real game-changer for us”, and Johnson’s statement yesterday of the “complete opposite”, with test and trace able to contribute “very little or nothing”.

“Which one is it?” the ruler of Planet Fact demanded.

The ruler of Planet Freedom declined to engage with this pedantry.

Sir Keir, in his sternest tone, said that “pretending there isn’t a problem is part of the problem, Prime Minister,” and posed another either/or question: did the PM agree with “the Dido Harding defence” of the problem with track and trace (not enough capacity) or “the Matt Hancock defence” (too many people applying for tests who don’t need them)?

No Cavalier could allow such an insult from a Roundhead to a damsel in distress to pass unavenged, and Johnson’s sword leapt from his scabbard: “The continual attacks by the Opposition on Dido Harding are unseemly and unjustified.”

What we want to see, Johnson went on, “is more of the spirit of togetherness that we had yesterday”, instead of this constant knocking from the sidelines.

Starmer was stung. He pointed out that his wife, mother and sister all work or worked for the NHS. He would take no lectures from the PM on the subject.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, said the Scots did not want Johnson to put his arms round them.

Johnson: “I can imagine that he doesn’t want a hug from me…that was a metaphor.”

On Planet Freedom, the use of imagery is regarded as delightful, while literal fact is ignored.

Puritans are enraged by this, and want to smash Johnson’s images. Their difficulty is that as they do so, they sound a bit self-righteous, and may even find the images are quite widely venerated.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: A better day for Johnson, who refuses to go grouse shooting

16 Sep

Boris Johnson had an easier time than at his last two PMQs. He adopted a more magnanimous tone, which suits him better.

This was a compliment to Sir Keir Starmer, who by absenting himself for a Covid test, enabled the Prime Minister to feel under no real pressure, and therefore to sound kinder and gentler.

Angela Rayner stood in for the Leader of the Opposition. She was rather good, but did not constitute a threat. Johnson felt no compulsion to strike low blows in order to neutralise her, as he sometimes attempts under cross-examination from Sir Keir.

The Prime Minister knew there was no profit in roughing up a woman. He instead insisted that he shared her pain, and her love of care workers. He said she was “right to express the frustration of people across the country” at delays to testing.

Soon he was telling her she was “absolutely right” to raise some other issue. The PM was daring to be dull: not a manner to which he cares to resort, but everyone obliged to defend the performance of the British state finds in the end that dullness has its uses.

Rayner sought to provoke him: “Next time a man with Covid symptoms drives from London to Durham it’ll probably be for a Covid test.”

Johnson remained amiable, so she accused him of treating the restoration of grouse shooting as the Government’s top priority, in order to curry favour with his friends and benefactors who own grouse moors.

At last, we thought, we could sit back and enjoy a bit of old-fashioned class war. The ancient Labour sport of toff hunting was alive and well.

Surely Johnson would strike back with a word in praise of Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister from 1957-63, whose reputation as a moderniser was latterly somewhat obscured by photographs of him on grouse moors.

Johnson was too disciplined to take the bait. What a professional. He remarked that Labour was “carping from the sidelines” and “raising issues that are tangential”. He himself preferred to believe that “with the common sense of the British people” the crisis could be surmounted.

So this was a sad day for those of us who cherish outdated stereotypes to do with grouse moors. But it was quite a good day for Johnson.

Richard Holden: If Starmer stands – or kneels – for each passing fad, he won’t rebuild trust with working class voters

14 Sep

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Trust by the electorate of a political party boils down to a belief about whether someone feels you represent them, their family and their community at an underlying level. The trust in Labour that had existed for a century across many parts of the North of England and the Midlands had been stretched under the latter years of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Under Jeremy Corbyn, it finally snapped.

The explanations of why that trust ended – a break that led to the metamorphosis of the ‘Red Wall’ into the ‘Blue Barricade’ (as it’s now known in Westminster) – are many, but the main reason is that traditional Labour voters, over time, stopped seeing the people who they’d elected as representing them.

It’s true to say that this shift took place over years – even decades – but it was seen most clearly of all by Labour’s rejection of Brexit in last year’s general election because Labour finally said what many had suspected: that it knew better than its own voters.

Keir Starmer’s push for a second referendum on EU membership was fundamental to that. Yes, Corbyn was a major issue – but he had been for many two years before, too. The cold, hard difference between 2017 and 2019 was Labour’s position on Brexit, and that the electorate saw, from 2017, that Corbyn might get in and implement it.

The party’s second referendum Brexit position was taken because the Labour higher echelons in London thought, as they had done for many years (and did in Scotland previously), that they could take what was then the Red Wall for granted, and pursue a policy that was anathema to their own traditional voters.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that we see Starmer, the man behind the policy that did the most damage to Labour in 2019, writing in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph that we need to stop “banging on about Brexit.” For the London Labour Party, the core of the woketerati establishment, it’s a typically upper middle-class response of “Don’t talk about it and hope it goes away” approach. Starmer clearly sees both those who voted for Brexit and the entire concept of Brexit as a vulgar embarrassment to be ignored.

But it’s not just on Brexit that he is ensuring his party stays silent. Can you remember a good point that he’s made at Prime Minister’s Questions? One that really stuck with you? Or even one of those jibes that reveal something deeper? I’m struggling.

Does Labour have even one policy idea that has managed to emerge in the first five months of his leadership? It’s been 150 days, and he’s still leaving the public guessing. Even Labour’s forays into opposition to the Government quickly come unstuck as soon as you ask: “so what would you do instead?” Journalists don’t even need to ask the “How would you pay for it?” question.

Starmer doesn’t want to get into Brexit: in fact, he’d literally rather not talk about it – or anything else, for that matter. He has been struck dumb on the biggest foreign and economic policy issue ofour time. Which is hardly surprising – as the performance of Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, on Sophie Ridge on Sunday yesterday showed.

It’s easy to criticise, but if you literally don’t have a policy you end up by inventing one and, in doing so on the hoof. Labour’s problem is that this means capitulating to EU demands on state aid, fishing and the integrity of the United Kingdom.

I can understand why Labour is burnt. They tried to stand for a policy – one on a second referendum, as designed by Starmer – and people didn’t like it. The problem that he now faces is that if you stand for nothing, you therefore fall (or at least kneel) for any passing fad. And that will soon start to show in the further undermining of trust – which is the one factor that Starmer needs, above anything, to rebuild if he is to be in with a shot of being able to win back the Blue Barricade.

For us Conservatives, trust cuts the other way. We must, as the Prime Minister said, repay the trust placed in us by the British people when they voted for us, particularly in the communities where, like mine, they took a leap of faith for the first time ever. That means standing up for our communities and what they voted for: control of our own money, borders, and laws. It also means delivering, over time and methodically, on the levelling up agenda.

If Labour isn’t prepared to have a policy on Brexit, or tax and spend, or education, or health, or social care – even in the broadest terms then – electorally at least – Starmer will end up being Continuity Corbyn. Or perhaps worse.

The volte face that Labour is currently trying to manage as an opposition in seeking to defend a Withdrawal Agreement that it opposed is farcical. Starmer needs to decide which voters he wants to trust him. In doing so, he’ll be able to look to build a case. I remember the days of the ‘quiet man’ in opposition, and it’s pretty clear to me that the ‘silent knight’ politics he’s adopted won’t withstand the struggles of the next few months – never mind years.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson starts to sound like the boss of a tractor plant in Minsk

9 Sep

Unless Matt Hancock mends his ways he will be “run ragged” by the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who will summon him to the House every day to answer an Urgent Question.

The Health Secretary made a statement in the House on Tuesday, and failed to tell MPs he was about to introduce a six-person limit on gatherings.

Hoyle was incandescent with rage: “It was all over Twitter. Somebody had decided to tell the media and not this House.”

At the end of PMQs, Sir Desmond Swayne had asked the Speaker, on a point of order: “What remedy is there for those of us who enthusiastically support the Prime Minister but nevertheless want to restrain the Government’s ability to govern by order without debate?”

Boris Johnson was sitting on the Treasury bench, and smiled and nodded gently as the Speaker exploded with fury at the absent Hancock. The Prime Minister’s demeanour was that of a schoolboy who finds it amusing that one of his chums is being given six of the best.

Johnson might have done better to look grave. For one of the problems from which he himself suffers just now is an inability to take the House into his confidence, and thereby carry MPs with him.

He naturally expected Sir Keir Starmer would challenge him on the shocking admission the day before by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, when asked about the Internal Market Bill: “Yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

I suppose one might say Lewis was taking the House into his confidence, but not in such a way as to carry MPs with him.

The Prime Minister seized the chance before facing Starmer to make a bald statement: “We expect everybody in this country to obey the law.”

Starmer then ducked the argument about the rule of law. This was an odd decision, for it is a necessary argument. However preposterous the PM’s attempts to extricate himself from the appalling statement made by Lewis might have been, we wanted to know what they were.

This is something the Commons can do extremely well: expose ministers when they are talking nonsense.

The Leader of the Opposition instead opened with the story of a woman in London who yesterday needed a Covid test for her sick child, and was told she could get one in Telford or Inverness.

As Starmer observed, “this is frankly ridiculous”. One might have expected Johnson, in his reply, to admit that something or other has gone wrong with the testing system.

He instead started to sound like the Communist Party boss of a tractor factory in Minsk: the NHS has performed 17.6 million tests, “more than any other country in Europe”.

The Prime Minister proceeded to accuse Starmer of attempting “to undermine confidence” in the NHS’s testing system.

Starmer had not done that. He had merely observed that the tests are not always reaching those who need them most.

“This is a Government that puts its arms round the people of this country,” Johnson said at a later stage of PMQs.

Again, this sounded like a strange, faintly totalitarian, even creepy remark for a Tory Prime Minister to be making. We don’t want the Government to put its arms round us. We just want it to do various things reasonably well.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson has a bad first day back, with no plausible excuses for not doing his homework

2 Sep

Boris Johnson had a bad first day back. While Sir Keir Starmer conveyed genuine moral indignation, the Prime Minister sounded like a schoolboy who has not merely failed to do his homework, but has not taken the trouble to think up any plausible excuses for failing to do it.

Starmer, in the manner of a teacher demanding proper answers from a disgracefully feckless pupil, began with “the exams fiasco”: “When did the Prime Minister first know there was a problem with the algorithm?”

There was no good answer, because as Starmer remarked, either the PM knew and did nothing, or did not know but should have known.

Johnson accused Starmer of “going round undermining confidence…spreading doubts…gloom and dubitation”. But this counter- attack was mounted in a lacklustre way.

Starmer proceeded to accuse Johnson of “making it up as he goes along” and “just playing games”, but there was in fact something oddly unplayful in the PM’s demeanour. He was not enjoying himself, and in the socially distanced Chamber, less than a tenth as full as it would be in normal times for PMQs, lacked the audience which might have spurred him into performing with brio.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, was not amused: “We do need to have the answers.”

Johnson didn’t have them. He tried to dub Starmer “Captain Hindsight”, and accused him of having for years supported an IRA sympathiser, i.e. Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer retorted that “the problem is the PM is governing in hindsight”, and waxed wrathful at the slur that he had somehow supported the IRA, when actually he had spent years prosecuting it.

He demanded that Johnson have the “decency” to withdraw the IRA comment, but added that “doing the decent thing and the Prime Minister don’t go together”.

The PM was unrepentant. His hooliganism is reminiscent of Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, who in the 1880s was almost unbelievably rude about Gladstone, but in a wittier way than Johnson today achieved.

So this was not a glorious half-hour. It showed instead the profound incompatibility between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition.

Starmer is bound to find Johnson disreputable, and was today successful in showing him up. Johnson is bound to find Starmer prosy and negative, and was today unable to make those charges stick.

Ian Blackford, for the Scots Nats, said on a point of order that Downing Street had accused the SNP of revealing the whereabouts of Johnson’s holiday cottage in Scotland: “this allegation and briefing was entirely and deliberately false”, “the worst kind of political smear”, should not have been engaged in by “the apparatus of the British Government”, and had led to threats against Blackford as the local MP.

Johnson replied in a light-hearted manner, whereupon the Speaker reminded the House in a grave tone of the “security implications”. So we see Johnson, by his impenitence, infuriating those who think life is real and life is earnest.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Starmer and Johnson look like inhabitants of different planets

22 Jul

“The Labour Party is under new management,” Sir Keir Starmer declared. He got his message across rather well at PMQs.

In this endeavour, he had a certain amount of help from Boris Johnson, who was intent on attacking the old Labour Party, which was led by Jeremy Corbyn and parroted the Kremlin line.

The party has changed, Starmer retorted, and in any case, he himself never took orders from Corbyn about giving in to Moscow.

Tony Blair used to persuade middle England that he must be sound, by saying things which produced cries of anguish from the Left of the Labour Party.

Starmer is doing something similar: the more he renounces Corbyn, and is denounced by him, the sounder he expects to appear to normal, patriotic voters.

Johnson today tried to avert any impression that Starmer was sound by accusing the Leader of the Opposition of yielding to “pressure from the Islington Remainers who have seized on” the Russia report in an attempt to suggest that Vladimir Putin is “somehow responsible for Brexit”.

The Prime Minister used to live in Islington, where he was not taken seriously until he led Leave to victory in the EU Referendum, whereupon his neighbours paid him the compliment of starting to hate him.

So Johnson knows about the Islington Remainers and sees advantage in getting Starmer regarded as a paid-up member of that group.

Yet the Prime Minister also wishes to persuade us that Starmer keeps changing his views from week to week, even from day to day: “The Leader of the Opposition has more flip flops than Bournemouth beach.”

The Islington Remainers are reluctant to change their minds about anything, so Johnson may in the end have to decide which of these two lines of attack he proposes to maintain.

Starmer, annoyed to be thought inconstant, struck back at Johnson as “the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article”, a reference to the two articles Johnson wrote, for and against EU membership, as he wondered which side to back in the EU Referendum.

As Parliament breaks up for the summer recess, neither contender has established a clear ascendancy over the other. Each is  good at what he does, which is so different to what the other man does that there are times when they look like inhabitants of different planets.