What we learnt from the first year of Boris Johnson's PMQs

The Prime Minister and his main opponent don't agree on much but they share a diagnosis.

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PMQs has two uses: the first, which is exclusive to the Prime Minister, is that it is an accountability tool for the sitting Prime Minister to monitor what is happening across government. Don’t have an answer to the leader of the opposition over the condition of the National Health Service? You probably need to get the Health Secretary in to explain themselves. Badly exposes over the number of police on the streets? Either the Home Secretary or the Chancellor of the Exchequer need to buck their ideas up.

This function depends on the Prime Minister having sufficient grip and/or a commitment to the truth that this keeps the departments in line. One aspect of PMQs that isn’t functioning as well as it should under Boris Johnson, according to several departments, is that there are very few knock-on consequences from the task of preparing for PMQs: this Downing Street’s preferred response to finding out a problem somewhere in the British state is just to use a soft interpretation of the stats or to call Keir Starmer a Remainer.

But it’s second function is essentially to road-test the strengths and weaknesses of the two parties’ attack lines. If you can’t bring up, say, the health service, because your record on it is patchy or because the other lot’s record is so strong that you’ll just get mullered in PMQs, you probably shouldn’t try to fight an election on healthcare.
Those two reasons are part of why when I became political editor, I stopped covering PMQs as a matter of “who won/won lost”: because ultimately the audience for PMQs is a small group, largely made up of committed partisans, whereas the issues it reveals that a government or opposition has have a much broader read-across.

The other reason is that bluntly I thought at the time a half-competent Prime Minister should always at least draw PMQs. Because they are the one answering, or rather not answering the question, they have the final word and they should therefore at least be able to force a stalemate with their response to the final question. I’m not sure I still think this – Starmer has done a goodish job of negating this advantage by using his final question to raise an issue that makes it hard for Johnson to just do his attack line without looking crass, for example this week by asking about the atrocities committed against the Uyghur minority in China.

Just as the evolution of football defending has all but eliminated 4-4-2 at the top level, it may be the case that it is now the leader of the opposition who always “ought” to be able to force a draw simply by depriving the Prime Minister of the ability to use their final attack without getting bad write-ups. I don’t know: either way, grading PMQs as “theatre” seems a bit of a fool’s errand.

But it’s use as a way of looking at parties’ vulnerabilities and problems across the state remains. So where are the various parties at, a year into Boris Johnson’s term of office and 100 days into the reign of Keir Starmer?

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer don’t agree on much but they do share a diagnosis: on what the Labour leader’s biggest vulnerabilities are

Johnson wants to be able to attack the Labour leader as an irreconcilable Remainer – to make the next election a contest about cultural divides and principles. Starmer wants to avoid that and instead to make the next election a contest about competence: to talk up his tenure as director of public prosecutions and to outline where the government is moving slowly or ineptly.

That’s broadly been the pattern of Prime Minister’s Questions in the Starmer era: the Labour leader attacks on detail and competence, the Prime Minister pivots to culture and values. Starmer wants the next election to be about valence issues – operational competence, managerial acumen – while Johnson wants it to be about values, specifically Brexit. Starmer’s fallback position when his preferred approach doesn’t work is to talk about his record as DPP; Johnson’s fallback position is to highlight that Starmer served in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.

Johnson’s Plan B attack looks better to my eyes than his Plan A. Come 2024, eight years will have passed since the Brexit referendum – as long ago as Boris Johnson’s 2012 re-elect as Mayor of London is today – and it feels unlikely to me that the Remain/Leave divide will still retain its political force. I think it will still illuminate other divisions, for example on the death penalty, or on social liberalism vs authoritarianism, but I don’t think it is particularly likely Remain/Leave will be a particularly animating force in 2024. There will, however, be at least 40 Labour MPs who are to Starmer’s left who will wield a degree of influence in a Starmer-led government: they look to my eyes to be a bigger area of vulnerability, if nothing else because they will actually be relevant in 2024.  

Both Starmer’s preferred line of attack and his fallback position look well-calibrated to hurt Boris Johnson, but look vulnerable to a change in Conservative leader: is competence the best frame with which to attack Rishi Sunak, or Sajid Javid, or Jeremy Hunt?

The two big questions as far as the Conservative-Labour battle are, firstly, will Johnson’s vulnerability on matters of detail and delivery in PMQs means that the backdrop of British politics by 2023 is another bit of the state collapsing into crisis, another failed project, another costly overrun, another scandal about public funds, etc. etc – or will a beefed-up Downing Street be better-equipped to handle these problems, allowing Johnson to fight the next election on cultural issues? And secondly, if that is the situation by 2023, will the Tories just get rid of Johnson, meaning Starmer can’t fight the next election on competence grounds anyway?

Johnson doesn’t have an answer to the SNP other than “No”

One of the striking failures of Boris Johnson’s statecraft is after a health crisis in which the British Treasury has paid the wages of large numbers of people in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom’s independent central bank has made full use of its ability to print money and lend freely, is that support for the union between England and Scotland is at a consistent and historic low.

He struggles to answer questions about the rising support for independence – which reflects the defensive crouch that too many unionists have begun to adopt.

But Johnson is improving

The Prime Minister is a lot better at handling supportive questions that require him to say a few warm words about government policy, and no longer struggles to answer questions from former minsters. Keir Starmer shouldn’t rule out that year two of Boris Johnson turns out to be more effective than year one.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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