What is Prime Ministers' Questions? Is it a simple contest of ideas? Or is it a judicial roasting in which a lone defendant, governed by strict rules, must face an army of malign inquisitors? Boris thinks it’s an open debate about policy. Speaker Hoyle sees it as a court-hearing over which he presides as judge and procedural expert.
Today they clashed.
It began with Sir Keir Starmer blowing holes in Boris’s botched catch-up plan for schools. A government wonk, Sir Kevan Collins, had ordered huge sums to be lavished on the programme but the Treasury declined. Boris agreed with the Treasury. And Sir Kevan flounced off into obscurity leaving a few stinging insults about the education department in his wake. Ho-hum. Just another day in Whitehall.
But Sir Keir Starmer affected to be horrified at the abandonment of the Collins Doctrine. ‘It will hold back Britain for a generation,’ he gasped. He was referring to the fact that our teenagers have missed a term or two of rote-learning. Some would call that a mercy, not a disaster. Sir Keir, in the depths of his shock and dismay, had managed to put a figure on the calamity. It would cost the country ‘£100 billion’. He didn’t say how he reached that number.
Boris denied that he’d scrimped on the catch-up budget and he enlarged on his plan to introduce one-to-one tuition in state schools. This policy deserves an award from the Ministry of Daft Ideas. Our schools have now become so bad that wealthier parents are hiring private tutors to bring their nippers up to scratch. This creates inequalities which the government seeks to remedy by offering new super-tutors to struggling kids. But where will these new super-tutors be recruited? No doubt, from the existing pool of useless teachers whose failures created the need for super-tutors.
Sir Keir harangued Boris about this using a new patronising tone, like a pre-school assistant explaining how shoe-laces are tied.
‘Let’s take this very slowly for the Prime Minister,’ he said, apparently convinced that condescension is a lethal weapon that will scupper Boris’s career. Boris broadened things out and reminded us that Labour’s manifesto in 2019 had promised to scrap Ofsted. And he invited Sir Keir to repudiate the policy in public. Speaker Hoyle pounced.
‘It is Prime Ministers' Questions. And it isn’t about the agenda of the last general election.’
Boris remained seated and threw a bit of cheek back at the chair. A second rebuke came his way.
‘Ofsted wasn’t the question,’ said Hoyle. ‘And I’m more interested in [the PM] answering the question.’
Boris stood up, softly bristling with defiance.
‘I think, with great respect, I am entitled to draw attention to what the Labour party stood on at the last election. And they did want to get rid of Ofsted.’
He escaped further chastisement. But Hoyle wasn’t finished. Boris likes to ramble as he delivers his final answer and today he embarked on a flourish that contrasted the dynamic, practical Tories with Labour’s dithering theorists.
‘They pontificate,’ he roared, ‘they prevaricate, they procrastinate…’
Hoyle yelled out two words and the PM duly sat down and fell silent. But the words Hoyle used were simply, ‘Felicity Buchan’, the name of the next MP on the list. So it was all done with good-humoured decorum.
Felicity Buchan stood up and honked out a question using her ‘unexpected-item-in-bagging-area’ voice. ‘We need to build back better,’ she parroted, ‘in a green way, and in a way that levels up all parts of the UK.’
Which is good news for the government. Their plan to micro-chip all Tory backbenchers is going well.