PMQs began with a tribute from Speaker Hoyle who seemed thrilled to see Boris back at work and in Bunterish good health. ‘The whole country is delighted at his recovery,’ he added. A quick trawl thorough Twitter would disprove that optimistic claim.
Sir Keir Starmer, in his debut against Boris, asked how the government could claim ‘success’ against Covid-19 when Britain is filling more coffins than any country in Europe. Boris wriggled a bit and said international comparisons were unreliable. Sir Keir held up a coloured graph showing a range of mortality-rates across the continent. ‘The government has been using slides like this,’ he said. Then he asked about the numbers dying in care-homes.
Boris: ‘He’s not right about the state of the epidemic in care-homes. In the last few days there has been a palpable improvement.’
Sir Keir: ‘I was using a slide the government used last night.’
On testing, Sir Keir also had the upper hand. On lapses in the provision of PPE Boris was reduced to signalling his agreement with his opponent. ‘I share his frustration. It’s been enraging!’ he said, giving his own leadership a hefty kick.
He was at Sir Keir’s mercy. But the Labour leader moved on to a question which made Boris look calm and statesmanlike: his plans to ease the lockdown. For some reason, either generosity or botched tactics, Sir Keir let Boris go free. And what a contrast with his predecessor. Corbyn was useless but grumpy. Sir Keir is formidable but kindly. Had the house been full, Boris would have been flat on the canvas.
Ian Blackford, for the SNP, appeared via webcam from a sunny room in his Hebridean retreat. A pair of nice tartan window-blinds reduced the glare. In a sweeping and carefully rehearsed oration, he addressed the country at large, his fellow parliamentarians, and the PM in person. First, the nation. He warned us all about the perils of a Second spike and urged everyone ‘not to travel to tourist areas’, including his constituency of Skye. He’s right, of course. Millions of Britons have pencilled in, ‘must see Ian Blackford’, as their top priority when the lockdown ends.
Next, he ordered his fellow MPs to refrain from ‘the politics of posturing’ during the crisis. Who did he mean?
Two weeks ago, Dominic Raab, (standing in for the prime minister), was asked by a prominent MP to ‘put cash into everyone’s pockets’ by introducing a universal basic income which would foster, ‘a fairer society.’
‘Give us a straight answer,’ thundered this opportunistic inquisitor. ‘Does he support the proposal or reject it?’
Since Ian Blackford suffers from a short memory he won’t be aware that the questioner was Ian Blackford. Finally he turned to Boris and his plans for Operation Unlock which the PM will announce on Sunday. Blackford’s advice: ‘The substance of the address will have to be fully agreed by the devolved nations.’ In other words Boris’s policy must first win royal assent from Her Britannic Majesty, Nicola Sturgeon.
Nearly every MP, including Sir Keir, welcomed Boris’s return to the Commons. Many sent their best wishes to Baby Wilf who emerged from lockdown last Wednesday. The hotly contested prize for Narcissist of the Day went to Labour’s Mike Amesbury.
‘I welcome the prime minister back to his place on my birthday.’