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15 December 2021updated 08 Jun 2023 9:35am

What we learned from the final PMQs of 2021

Tory MPs aren’t in the mood to help Boris Johnson out in any way, shape or form. 

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson’s reluctance to go against a majority of Tory MPs means another lockdown is unlikely

The central theme of Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson’s exchanges today (15 December) was the Prime Minister’s reliance on Labour votes to pass Covid restrictions into law. Although Johnson could point to the fact that he retained the support of a majority of Tory back benchers, these measures would not have gone through had Labour voted against them. 

It may well be the case that further restrictions are required. But given the high level of Conservative opposition to even relatively moderate changes to rules on face masks, working from home and self-isolation, Johnson’s reluctance to admit his dependence on Labour makes another lockdown highly unlikely. 

Conservative MPs aren’t in the mood to help Boris Johnson out in any way, shape or form 

One of the reasons why soft questions from government back benchers help the prime minister of the day is that they give them time to collect themselves in what is otherwise a very difficult 30 minutes.

And one reason why back benchers are keen to provide them, even if they have no hope or ambition of being rewarded with a ministerial job, is that the value of a closed-door conversation with the relevant minister is greater than the value of asking the prime minister a difficult question (if you’re a government MP, that is). 

So it was a striking demonstration of the low levels of trust that currently exist between Conservative MPs and Downing Street that none of Liam Fox, Bob Neill or Peter Aldous opted to softball their questions. Even Fox’s calls for his change in the law to provide greater support and longer-term guarantees of care for people with Down’s Syndrome was not phrased in a particularly welcoming way. This can partly be explained by the feeling among Tory MPs that private commitments from this government are not, at present, worth very much. 

Another explanation is straightforward hostility: Tom Tugendhat’s question about Foreign Office aid cuts could have come from an opposition back bencher. Kieran Mullan and Paul Howell, the Conservative MPs for Crewe and Sedgefield respectively, did however ask more traditionally supportive questions.

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Gags are still an opposition back bencher’s best friend

Prime Minister’s Questions is mostly won or lost outside the chamber before anyone has asked a question. The exception is when a single gag or stunt – such as Ed Miliband asking David Cameron if there was anything his government “could organise in a brewery” – means that nothing else that happens that week matters politically.

Footage via Parliament TV – Video by Hugh Smiley

If you’re a back bencher wanting to burnish your own reputation in the bubble, a joke always works, as Nick Smith demonstrated with a cute question about whether last week’s “Crime Week” – which the government had hoped would dominate the news agenda with announcements about fighting crime, before being overwhelmed by stories about lockdown-breaching Christmas parties – was a success.

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