Isabel Hardman

PMQs: Partygate isn’t Johnson’s only problem

There are other questions about impropriety

PMQs: Partygate isn’t Johnson’s only problem
(Photo by Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)
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Sir Keir Starmer used Prime Minister's Questions today to show how hard it is going to be for Boris Johnson to move on from the Sue Gray report. The Labour leader acknowledged as he opened that there was going to be a statement on that inquiry right after this session, and so he was going to focus on the cost of living. It underlined that even if the Prime Minister manages to keep his backbenchers sufficiently calm to 'survive' the Gray report, that survival is not going to be followed by a swift recovery of his political fortunes.

Starmer started by asking when the U-turn on a windfall tax on the profits of energy companies would come. The Prime Minister did not deny that there was going to be a change in policy. In his second question, Starmer made two jokes: the first was that ‘I'm told that hindsight is a wonderful thing’, which was a reference to Johnson's 'Captain Hindsight' nickname for his opponent. The second was to ask what it was that attracted Johnson to the idea of a windfall tax U-turn in the week of the Sue Gray report. Not surprisingly, it was easier for the Labour leader to seem on top of things than it was for Johnson. The Prime Minister chose to talk a lot about how much Labour ‘get off’ on putting up people's taxes, adding later in the session that ‘you can feel the lust for tax rising up off those benches’. It is characteristically colourful language, but it is also something his own backbenchers might reasonably accuse him of, given the size of the current tax burden.

One significant flaw in Starmer's messaging is that he is so focused on branding the windfall tax a Labour idea in order to get the political credit for the U-turn that he forgets to sell it to the public. What people are worried about is how they are going to afford their bills, and yet he often neglects to mention that the proposal is intended to fund a cut of £200 or more for most households, with targeted extra support for particularly vulnerable people of up to £600. He didn't mention that today, which was an odd omission.

Later in the session, long-time critic of the Prime Minister William Wragg asked a zinger of a question. He said he could not think why the cabinet secretary and director of government propriety and ethics had been banned from giving evidence to his select committee. Wragg then added a line which drew gasps from across the House: ‘Was it the case of undeclared loans and donations in kind, security insights into appointments to the House of Lords or indeed the consultation of the propriety and ethics units on ministerial appointments?’ It showed Johnson's problems over breaking rules and unethical behaviour will not disappear as a result of the publication of Gray's report, either.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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