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2 September 2020

What we learned from Boris Johnson’s chaotic return to PMQs

The Prime Minister is panicking after a summer of U-turns.

By Ailbhe Rea

The Prime Minister is panicking

It was the first exchange between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer of the new parliamentary term, and it was quite an extraordinary event. After a summer of U-turns, Keir Starmer put to the Prime Minister a series of comments from his own Conservative backbenchers, decrying the chaos of the past few months. In response, Johnson simply panicked. He abandoned any semblance of engagement with the Labour leader’s question to instead hurl a slew of unrelated accusations: that Starmer had supported remaining in the EU and an “IRA-condoning politician” in serving under the last Labour leader.

It is commonplace for a Prime Minister to pivot away from a question towards more comfortable attack lines. It is rare, however, to do so with so little skill that the Speaker intervenes to request that the PM “try and answer the question that’s being put”. 

What is more remarkable is that Johnson, in a panic, made a comment so provocative it derailed the rest of the exchange, as MPs filled the chamber with shouts of “withdraw!”. Starmer himself, appearing angry, demanded that Johnson withdraw his remarks, as the Labour leader cited his extensive work prosecuting terrorists in Northern Ireland as director of public prosecutions, and his track record of working with Northern Ireland’s police service. The Speaker Lindsay Hoyle also invited Johnson to withdraw his comments, which he declined to do.

Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations with the IRA were a useful attack line for Johnson during the leadership debates before the last election. That he used it here, against a different Labour leader, suggests a Prime Minister clinging to his last lines of defence; an impression only furthered by a clumsy attack on Starmer for being a Remainer and for U-turning on schools – one of the few attacks that has worked reasonably well for Johnson when facing Starmer so far. 

After PMQs, Boris Johnson is meeting with MPs from the 2019 intake and, later today, with members of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers. The Prime Minister’s performance gave some indication of what those meetings will reveal: a fractious parliamentary party with growing concerns after a summer of U-turns, and a leader visibly weakened.

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There will be no extension to the furlough scheme

The Labour leader, the SNP leader in Westminster Ian Blackford, and the opposition back benches spoke with one voice in the chamber today, as they raised concerns about the furlough scheme finishing at the end of October. But Johnson was resolute in saying the scheme cannot continue to support people in “unemployment” on “substantial sums” indefinitely. 

Conservative backbenchers are pushing for a crackdown on asylum seekers and the BBC

Questions from Conservative backbenchers confirmed a theme that has developed over the summer: there is a strong will from parts of the Tory party to see stronger action taken against migrants and asylum seekers who try to enter the UK illegally, as there is over the licence fee and the BBC more generally. The government appears only too happy to oblige.

Things are getting nasty between the Conservatives and the SNP

Ian Blackford was granted a rare point of order to accuse Downing Street of smearing him after the location of Johnson’s holiday in the Scottish Highlands was revealed, with several papers naming Blackford as the origin of that leak. Johnson responded by quoting a tweet in which Blackford did appear to know the Prime Minister’s location. There was clear hostility on both sides. With the Union possibly at stake in the Scottish parliamentary elections next May, it is a taste of things to come between the two parties. 

This article was amended after publication to clarify that Ian Blackford raised a point of order, not an urgent question. 

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