After last week’s shambles, Boris could barely have performed worse at PMQs today. Sir Keir Starmer began with a horror-story endured by two parents in London.
They needed an urgent Covid test for a feverish toddler but were told that nothing was available in the capital. Go to Romford, was the advice. Then they were directed to Hayward’s heath, (‘half-way to Brighton’ said Sir Keir), then to Telford, then to Inverness, then to Swansea. Finally, after searching all day, they found a precious test in the Lee Valley but it was also being offered to people in Manchester.
‘Who is responsible?’ said Sir Keir, doing his ‘rent-collector short of patience’ voice.
Boris stood up. It looked as if he was about to brush off the question with his habitual self-serving bonhomie. Yes, folks, I’ve organised another national disaster because my government is absolutely brilliant and I’m continuing to provide the disciplined leadership this country craves.
And that, more or less, is what he said. But it actually made sense. He’d done his homework. He had the figures off by heart. Back in March, he said, there were 2,000 daily tests being conducted. The total has shot up to 320,000 and by next month it will soar again to 500,000. In all, 17.6m tests have been completed – a better record than any country in Europe.
‘We know in granular detail, in a way we didn’t earlier, what is happening with this pandemic.’
And he took a swipe at the Labour leader and anyone who ‘attacks NHS test-and-trace, and those who deprecate the efforts of those who are trying to keep us safe.’
Sir Keir hadn’t expected this assault on his integrity. He looked shocked and hurt, as if Boris’s professionalism were against the rules. He tried to pick a row over some footling inconsistency between what the PM and the Health Secretary had said. It just made him look petty. And he refuted Boris’s suggestion that he had ‘attacked’ the NHS.
Boris waded back in. Sir Keir had defamed ‘our heroic NHS workers’ who were busy delivering zillions of Covid tests every day. He advised Sir Keir to withdraw yesterday’s statement that test-and-trace was ‘on the verge of collapse.’
Sir Keir refused. Then it got worse for the great court-room star. He fluffed his lines. ‘This government lurches from crisis to crisis,’ he said, ‘the government lacks incompetence...’ Lacks incompetence? He swiftly rephrased it. ‘The government lacks competence.’
Boris pounced. ‘I think he was on the money when he said the government lacks incompetence’.
That cheered his supporters no end. But they turned ugly when their leader was called a ‘liar’ to his face. He was speaking about the Internal Market Bill, which the SNP’s Ian Blackford had described as an attack on Scotland ‘created by a parcel of rogues’.
Boris blithely answered that the Bill was ‘a massive devolutionary act’.
‘Liar’ was heard. Terrible insult. Strictly forbidden. Yelps of ‘withdraw’ erupted from angry Tories. The Speaker intervened. ‘I’m sure the leader of the SNP would like to withdraw that comment about being a liar.’
But Blackford refused. He got up and raged against a Bill which ‘is going to trample all over devolution. That is not a lie.’
The Speaker decided to overlook this defiance of his authority. ‘Mr Blackford you’re a great member of this house… and I’ve accepted that you’ve withdrawn it.’
No he hadn’t. Blackford, unsurprisingly, looked as pleased as punch. He’d managed to call an English prime minister a liar on the floor of the Commons. And it was all on TV. That’s the highlight of his career.