It’s a different game at PMQs. With fewer than 40 members present, the debates feel more like a committee meeting than a full-throated parliamentary session. It’s bad for democracy if the highlight of the parliamentary week looks so static and uninspiring. When the weather cheers up they should move to a secure location outdoors, (like the gardens of Buckingham Palace), where more members could attend and the sessions would be livelier. Meanwhile, MPs are chafing under the restrictions. They’ve started to mess about like schoolkids in detention. They play games. They needle each other. They stretch the rules, and they dare the Speaker to shut them up or tick them off.
Today they debated border closures. Sir Keir Starmer wants the UK sealed off forever like a sacred monastery on a Greek peninsula. Boris replied that this tempting idea had one slight problem. Everyone would die. Nearly half of our food, he said, and the majority of our medicines originate from abroad so we would rapidly succumb to famine or disease. He then accused Sir Keir of calling for Britain to stay in the European Medicines Agency.
‘He said it four times from that despatch box.’
This was serious. The PM implied that Sir Keir’s policy would have left the country unvaccinated.
‘Nonsense,’ said the Labour leader. ‘The Prime Minister knows I’ve never said that from this despatch box or anywhere else. But the truth escapes him.’
That was even more serious. Without saying ‘liar’ he’d accused the PM of misleading the House. Outraged Tories honked in protest but the Speaker did nothing.
Boris had another go when Sir Keir asked him about the cladding crisis. The PM said ‘the European Medical Agency’ to get a reaction. ‘He’s shaking his head but he can check the record. He said it several times.’ He dared the Labour leader to raise it as a point of order. Sir Keir wimped out. He simply lacked the guts.
Boris was in full flow, attacking Sir Keir over his schools policy and for ‘looking at Labour focus groups who tell him he should stop sitting on the fence…’ He could have gone on for hours.
‘No, Prime Minister,’ snapped the Speaker. ‘We’ve got to be somewhere near the question.’
Next, Boris fooled around with the SNP. He’s been ordered by the Speaker to use their correct name: Scottish National party. But when Ian Blackford accused him of endangering Scotland’s entire population during his recent visit, Boris made his favourite boob. ‘The Scottish Nationalist party,’ he said. Then, for fun, he corrected himself. ‘Scottish National party,’ and he pointed a finger of acknowledgement at the Speaker. He then corrected his correction. He said ‘National’ is their name — ‘if they insist, but they are also nationalists.’
He got away with that one. Sir Keir’s controversy returned after the Speaker had closed the session. Mark Francois intervened. ‘Point of order,’ he hooted, at town crier volume.
The Speaker allowed it. Francois had scoured the archives on his smartphone. He threw the incriminating quote at Sir Keir. ‘Hansard, 31 January, 2017… All medicines in the European Union market are safe and effective.’ This was hilarious. But the Speaker was furious.
‘Order! We’re not continuing the debate!’
And that was it. Tune in next week for more pointless niggles.