What were they? Model broomsticks? Mini cricket bats? The chewed ends of lolly-sticks? At PMQs today many MPs arrived with odd sprigs of material attached to their clothing. The badges turned out to be ‘wheat-pins’ which are part of ‘Back British Farming Day’. Sir Keir Starmer had attached his device firmly to his jacket. Very sensible. Boris had lazily shoved the thing into his breast pocket. It slowly descended into the depths of the lining and disappeared.
The session began sombrely as members expressed their sympathy with Boris over his recent bereavement. Sir Keir Starmer took just three seconds to turn it into a story about himself. ‘I offer my condolences to the Prime Minister on the loss of his mother,’ said the Labour leader. ‘As I know at first hand, losing a parent is never easy.’
But of course. In matters of personal suffering, Sir Keir is streets ahead of everyone else. He brought up the cut in Universal Credit and accused the PM of forcing recipients to work extra hours to make up the shortfall.
But how many hours, he asked.
Boris didn’t answer. Well he did. But he expanded the subject to include rising wages across the economy and a new pay hike introduced by Costa. He implied, falsely of course, that both these blessings were the result of action by his government.
Sir Keir asked his question three times. And three times he got no reply. He supplied the answer, nine hours. And he went into great detail about the tax implications of the UC reduction. Turning to the increase in National Insurance, he itemised the wage cuts faced by various professions — including nurses.
Boris pounced on this.
‘It’s ridiculous that he attacks the government over salaries for nurses,’ he said. And he boasted that an extra 50,000 had been hired. ‘We have another £36 billion for the NHS and social care, on top of the £33 billion pledged when we came into office.’
This was a typical stalemate. Micro versus macro. Sir Keir tries to explore infinitesimally tiny details and Boris replies with numbers plucked from the stratosphere. His extra investment in the NHS amounts to £69 billion which is enough to reinvade Iraq or start a colony on the moon. Or both.
Yet Sir Keir insisted on pursuing the PM with minuscule figures that belong in spidery handwriting in the footnotes of dusty ledgers. Sheer bluster got Boris out of trouble today. And the happy-go-lucky mood of the Commons allowed him to brush aside Sir Keir’s swottish questions. But he could be in real trouble over the NHS.
Wages and results are the major issues. Nurses’ pay is seen as a critical test of the PM’s moral character. Is he Scrooge or Lady Bountiful? And the catastrophic inadequacies of the system came up twice today. Boris admitted that ‘one in ten’ members of the population are on waiting lists.
And when Labour’s Chris Bryant mentioned a constituent whose illness had become untreatable before it had been spotted, Boris agreed openly. He even increased the pressure on himself by telling Bryant that these are ‘experiences shared by literally millions of people because they haven’t been willing or able to get the oncology treatment they need because of pressures on the system.’
Has a more serious failure ever been admitted by a prime minister?
Vast numbers of citizens are receiving late diagnoses of potentially fatal conditions. In blunt terms, the NHS is killing us. If that doesn’t destroy the government, nothing will.