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18 March 2020updated 07 Sep 2021 7:34am

Six things we learned from this week’s PMQs

The government will soon need to go further to tackle coronavirus, and Universal Basic Income’s moment may come.

By Patrick Maguire in a new browser tab)

Coronavirus has changed parliament

Any casual observer of business in the Commons knows that Prime Minister’s Questions is perhaps the only regular fixture of the parliamentary calendar for which a full chamber is guaranteed. 

As well as those MPs lucky enough to succeed in the weekly shuffle — the process that determines which of them are allocated questions in advance — hundreds more bob in the hope of catching the Speaker’s eye, or merely watch. 

This week, however, the spectacle was altogether different: MPs from both parties were advised not to enter the chamber unless they had been allocated a question, or, in Labour’s case, if they were seeking to be called to ask one (far more Tory MPs were lucky in this week’s shuffle). 

Most members heeded the advice — and no more than a few dozen, each sat metres apart, were present for today’s decidedly subdued session. It was, perhaps, a model of how parliament might look after the Easter recess: open for emergency legislation and scrutiny, yes, but pared back significantly. 

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Labour must strike a delicate balance in opposition

Jeremy Corbyn’s six questions, as they are wont to be, were preceded by a lengthy monologue. This week, however, it was not confrontational, but a well-pitched tribute to those who have lost loved ones and the emergency services. The British public were being asked to make significant sacrifices, he said, and it was in that spirit Labour would oppose the government constructively. 

He went on to ask a series of questions on the government’s bailout, announced yesterday — specifically its wanting provisions for sick pay, renters, and measures to protect the self-employed — as well as its failure to prioritise the testing of NHS staff. In the absence of braying, booing and cheering from either side of the House, they lost rather a lot of their partisan edge. But he still shed light on an area of considerable discomfort for the government, and signed off with a peroration that offered a measured criticism of market economics.  

Corbyn, his frontbench and his successor will have to navigate this ethical question for some time yet — where does effective but respectful opposition become crass opportunism? For now, at least, Labour is getting the balance right. 

Downing Street is no longer waging a culture war

Boris Johnson was in remarkably, almost surreally restrained form this afternoon. There were no jokes — and nor was there any overt criticism of Corbyn himself, usually the fruit that hangs lowest before the Prime Minister’s despatch box. 

Indeed, Johnson repeatedly praised and agreed with Corbyn’s line of questioning — even after his leftist concluding statement. It was uncharacteristic stuff. Yet with the government having already misjudged its early response to the spread of the virus — and criticism of its bailout package growing — it neither has the incentive nor the political capital to lead with its chin. 

Universal Basic Income’s moment may soon come 

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster — whose contributions are usually greeted with a chorus of pantomime groans — rose to a silent house and atypically gracious Prime Minister to suggest, as Corbyn had, that the government’s bailout did too much for business and not enough for vulnerable people. 

In that spirit, Blackford said, and given rising job losses, would the Prime Minister considering the temporary introduction of a Universal Basic Income? 

To hear it suggested from the mouth of Blackford was itself striking — he is, as his detractors within and without the SNP like to remind him, a former investment banker on the party’s right. 

While Johnson did not endorse the plan, that he did not offer a comedic dismissal underlines the extent to which the coronavirus outbreak has, for now at least, shifted the debate on welfare. When even Donald Trump is discussing distributing cheques of $1,000 to every American, and the idea isn’t greeted by derisive hoots from the Conservative benches at Westminster, to speak of a paradigm shift does not seem an exaggeration. 

The government will soon need to go further

Respectful though the tone and tenor of contributions from Labour MPs were this afternoon, a common theme leapt out: the government’s bailout does not answer questions for the self-employed and renters. Expect Johnson and Rishi Sunak to announce more on that front in the coming days. Political and economic gravity demands they must. 

A delay to Brexit is the truth that dare not yet be spoken 

Stephen Farry, the Alliance MP for North Down, spoke for officials on both sides of Brexit negotiations when he asked the Prime Minister to acknowledge that a year-long delay to the Article 50 process was now inevitable. 

Johnson demurred, insisting that the matter had already been legislated for — in other words, no way. But while he does not feel able to admit it yet, the expectation on both sides is that Farry will be proved right.

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