Lloyd Evans

Starmer is yet to learn the art of PMQs

Starmer is yet to learn the art of PMQs
(Photo by Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament)
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Where to begin? That was one of most absorbing PMQs of recent times. Three top moments: the Speaker rebuked the PM for improper language. The Labour leader was humiliated by one of his own backbenchers. And Ian Blackford asked a good question. That’s right. It finally happened. The SNP leader in the House of Commons — the great windbag of the Western Isles — made history by raising a sensible point. The Scottish shellfish industry, he said, has been shafted by Brexit. The problem? Red-tape. Last Monday a hapless trawlerman had to watch while his £40,000 haul turned rotten on the dockside as a posse of EU form-fiddlers fretted over their paperwork. Scottish lobstermen now prefer to steam across the North Sea and land their pink crustaceans in Denmark. It's a shellfish shambles which the government must solve.

Boris replied with his usual accusation that the SNP is desperate to have Scotland gobbled up by the overmighty EU superstate. Blackford had a chance to make the PM look foolish but he dropped the fishermen’s concerns and staged a hissy-fit over the pronunciation of ‘Scottish National Party’. He claimed that the PM said ‘nationalist’ not ‘national’. (Memo to Blackford: why is ‘national’ acceptable while ‘nationalist’ is a hate-crime?). The rogue syllable went unheard by everyone except the super-prickly Blackford. His motto seems to be: always duck a large issue when there’s a smaller one to get angry about.

Moments earlier, Boris had locked horns with Sir Keir Starmer. The Labour leader interrogated the PM with the air of a glassy-eyed Edwardian detective summing up the case in a cheap murder mystery. He claimed that Boris had botched the pre-Christmas lockdown and caused 17,000 deaths. As proof, he relied on a dense mass of dates, timings and abstruse cross-references in letters exchanged from one office to another. Poor Sir Keir is under the impression that everyone is exactly like him, a political bookworm, an obsessive super-sleuth who loves to squirrel through dusty boxes of scrawled parchments looking for a gaffe by the Prime Minister. But no normal person is like Sir Keir. He’s odd. Today he kept waving his flappy bits of paper around with pious comments. ‘I’ll put that in the public domain… I have the guidance here.’ He flourished the sheets as if expecting a crowd of fascinated citizens to rush into the chamber and clamour to see his groundbreaking discoveries. Sir Keir’s fixation with minutiae is a political dead-end.

A better approach came from Labour’s Karl Turner who pointed out that the UK’s 11,000 pharmacies are sitting idle while their staff could be jacking us up with the miracle-jab. Why aren’t they? And why didn’t Sir Keir thump that ball across the net?

Boris brushed Sir Keir aside and accused him of shifting his ground every week. Labour, he said, had opposed the new vaccine. ‘Not true,’ huffed Sir Keir. Boris called him ‘absurd and hypocritical’ for attacking the government over free school meals. Hypocritical? The Speaker had had enough. He ordered both men to show ‘discipline and respect.’

Speaker: ‘Prime Minister, would you like to withdraw “hypocrisy”?'

Boris: ‘I’m delighted to be advised by you, Mr Speaker, and let me confine my criticism to absurdity — which I hope is acceptable. Mr Speaker? — the absurdity of the Rt. Hon. gentleman attacking us over free school meals.’

Did you see that? A brilliant dummy. The VAR shows that he didn’t obey the Chair and he didn’t withdraw the slur. And he was right. The Speaker shouldn’t get too prim about language. If MPs can’t take a verbal pasting they shouldn’t be in the house.