What we learned from this week's PMQs

Keir Starmer's equivocation on schools is coming back to haunt him, while competing definitions of poverty made this a difficult subject.

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The culture war continues...

PMQs began with a question from Martin Docherty-Hughes of the SNP, who drew attention to Boris Johnson's controversial choice of Munira Mirza, the current head of the No 10 policy unit, to set up the new commission on racial inequality. Mirza has previously cast doubts on the existence of institutional racism and has criticised a “culture of victimhood" among anti-racism campaigners. It has been reported that her involvement is a deliberate move by the No 10 inner circle to wage a "war on woke", stoking a culture war over statues and law and order that will shore up the Tory base. 

And indeed, those were the concerns raised in the very next question by Conservative MP Andrea Jenkyns, who received reassurance from the Prime Minister that all vandalism will be met with "the full force of the law" and that the government is looking to further legislate against the vandalism of war memorials. This is already a crime along with other criminal damage, but the government clearly hopes to make the targeting of war memorials a more serious offence.

...but opposition parties are taking a leaf out of Marcus Rashford's book instead  

While a culture war continues in the background, Labour is firmly focused on issues on which it can build consensus across its electoral coalition. Following the warm support for Marcus Rashford's call for free school meal vouchers to be extended in England, and the government's subsequent U-turn on the matter, Keir Starmer centred his questions to the Prime Minister around tackling child poverty, as did the SNP leader Ian Blackford. This was already something Labour has been pushing: it called for the extension before Rashford, only for the idea to be rejected by the government. But the Rashford story has shown how much public support and concern there is around this issue, and has reinforced opposition parties' awareness of the salience of it.    

PMQs is not a constructive forum to discuss poverty

The Labour leader strugged to land a blow on this issue, however, primarily because of differing and contested ways of defining and measuring poverty. Child poverty is likely to rise, Starmer pointed out; absolute and relative poverty have fallen, the PM replied; there are 600,000 more children in poverty since 2010, Starmer retorted. Neither was wrong, but each was free to select facts that best suited their argument. If anything, it proved that PMQs is not a helpful forum for genuine engagement on this serious issue.

...and Keir Starmer's equivocation on reopening schools is coming back to haunt him

Conservative MPs congratulated the Prime Minister on his form today during the debate. The PM displayed more energy and agility than in previous weeks, but his biggest strength was in questioning the Labour leader on his position on schools reopening. Starmer clearly hoped to approach the issue with constructive ambiguity when it first arose, leaving unions to challenge the government and the government to squirm on its own, with an offer from Labour to work together on finding a solution if the government wanted. But now, with child poverty at the top of the agenda, the PM can ask the Labour leader why he wasn't squarely behind the plan to reopen schools, arguably one of the best ways of supporting vulnerable children.

The question made this Johnson's strongest PMQs to date, which will come as a relief; directly after his appearance, he is off to address restive Tory backbenchers at the first 1922 committee since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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