Freedom Day on 19 July was the opening issue at PMQs. Boris welcomed the return to normality and the Labour leader offered to support a ‘balanced and reasonable’ end to lockdown. But he accused the government of being ‘reckless’. Hang on, cried Boris, Sir Keir was all in favour of Freedom Day last Monday. Can’t he make up his mind?
Sir Keir tried to re-baptise the ‘Delta strain’ the ‘Johnson variant.’ Which is unwise politics. After trying the new label once he dropped it. Perhaps a pushy intern had suggested it.
Neither leader scored a victory today. Ian Blackford of the SNP complained that the new voter-ID reforms will lead to rigged elections and a system where, ‘the government chooses voters rather than the voters choosing the government.’
A good line. Blackford’s tragedy is that he can’t isolate a killer-quote like that from his weekly cascade of verbosity. He’s like a broken fruit machine that keeps spewing plastic tokens from its gob.
Backbench questions were better. David Davis led a peasants’ revolt against cuts to foreign aid. Kevin Hollinrake suggested an intriguing reform. He named a whistleblower in a fraud case who had suffered financially during the lengthy trial. Might the impoverished witness get a slice of the pie as a reward? The sum recovered by HM Treasury was a whopping £28m. Quite a tempting hunk of cake. Boris promised that the solicitor-general would study the suggestion. Hopefully not for long. Paying witnesses in fraud cases is bound to undermine their evidence. Convicted embezzlers will cry ‘mis-trial’ and walk free.
Tim Loughton single-handedly took on the might of China. He denounced Xi Jinping as the author of genocide in Tibet, and he satirised the president’s laddish boast that he would ‘smash an opponent’s head against a wall of steel.’ Loughton then dramatically upped the stakes. He urged the Prime Minister to support ‘a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing’. Crikey! Rarely has the Commons heard such a blood-curdling threat to a foreign power. ‘Change your ways or we won’t visit your ice-rink.’
‘I’m instinctively opposed to sporting boycotts,’ replied Boris wisely. This could have escalated dangerously. If we sabotage China’s winter games, they may refuse to send their test team to Lords.
Labour’s mild-mannered backbencher, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, made a fire-cracker of a speech at the end. He recalled the death of his beloved grandmother, alone and unhugged by her kin, because of Covid restrictions. At her funeral he was forbidden from shouldering the coffin. And he attended other family funerals online in deference to the rules. It then emerged that government ministers and advisers had flouted the regulations. ‘Imagine our collective disgust,’ he thundered. He condemned the behaviour of ministers as, ‘psychotic, spineless, hypocritical'. Boiling with fury, he demanded an apology.
‘It’s one rule for him and his chums,’ he raged at Boris, ‘and another for the rest of us plebs.’
This was powerful stuff. Boris stood up, all meek and shiny-eyed and contrite, like a Labrador puppy caught on YouTube wolfing the chocolate eclairs. He reduced his voice to ‘official mourning level’:
‘No one can imagine what it must feel like to be deprived of the ability to hold the hand of a loved-one in their last moments’.
As for the apology, he was too shrewd to withhold it and too shrewd to give it.
‘He asks me to apologise. I do. I apologise for the suffering the people of this country have endured …’
That’s not an apology. He needed to add … ‘because of me.’ Yet again the Downing Street eel wriggles off the hook.