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16 December 2020

Five things we learned from (probably) the last PMQs of the year

Boris Johnson can't answer the question that defines his premiership to date, and four other things we learned at this week's Prime Minister's Questions.

By Ailbhe Rea

1. Boris Johnson said there is “unanimous agreement” that the rules won’t change for Christmas… 

The Prime Minister said that there was “unanimous agreement” between the four governments of the UK that there will be no change to the Christmas rules amid warnings about the plans to ease restrictions for five days over the festive period. His messaging did change, however, in emphasising the risks of asymptomatic transmission and urging people to “exercise extreme caution”.

2. … but Wales announced otherwise

While Keir Starmer warned the Prime Minister that the Christmas plans are the government’s “next mistake”, the Welsh government made it clear that there is not “unanimous agreement” about Christmas restrictions, as First Minister Mark Drakeford announced that the Welsh government will limit mixing to two households over the festive period, rather than the planned allowance of three households. Shortly afterwards, Nicola Sturgeon emphasised that discussions between the four governments have not ended but that the plan is to issue clearer, updated UK-wide advice encouraging people not to travel, to meet outdoors, and to spend Christmas at home if possible. 

3. Boris Johnson can’t answer the question that defines his premiership…

For what was likely to be the last Prime Minister’s Questions of the year (although parliamentary recess has yet to be finalised, pending votes on a potential Brexit deal), Keir Starmer asked if Boris Johnson could explain why the UK suffered “one of the highest numbers of Covid deaths in Europe… and the deepest recession of any major economy?” It is the biggest, most fundamental question about how Johnson and his government have performed this year, and today’s exchange showed two things about how Johnson will answer in future. First, the Prime Minister continues to emphasise the role of scientific advice in the decision to lock down late in March. Second, Johnson can only point weakly to successes that aren’t his own: the discovery of dexamethasone as an effective coronavirus treatment, and the fast approval of the Pfizer vaccine in the UK. It left the question about the overall death rate and economic scarring unanswered. 

4. … nor can he justify a £40k pay rise for Dominic Cummings

The Labour leader asked the Prime Minister to justify the £40,000 pay rise that his controversial senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, received before leaving Downing Street earlier this year, while the government freezes public sector pay. In his response, Johnson entirely dodged the question, while Starmer jibed that he hoped it wasn’t “performance pay”.

5. The Prime Minister is sounding more positive about the likelihood of a Brexit deal

In response to a question from the SNP’s Ian Blackford, Johnson said that there’s “every opportunity” that the EU will “see sense and do a deal”, taking a markedly more upbeat tone about the prospects of a UK-EU trade agreement than this time last week.

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