What we learned at this week’s “circuit break” PMQs

Boris Johnson is standing by his regional approach to Covid, but didn't rule out another lockdown.

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Boris Johnson firmly believes in the logic of his approach... 

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, Prime Minister's Questions featured a clear split over flagship coronavirus strategy after Labour leader Keir Starmer called for a "circuit break" lockdown, with both leaders genuinely convinced by the logic and necessity of their approach. Boris Johnson made a strong case for a regional strategy, highlighting the difference in cases in different parts of the country, and played to his back benches with an emphasis on the need to avoid a full national lockdown, with the economic and social harm that could cause. 

... but cannot rule anything out

Bolstered by the Sage evidence at every question, Keir Starmer pressed the Prime Minister hard on the tiering policy's bottom line: whether he can guarantee that it will bring the R rate below one, or, in other words, reverse the exponential rise in cases we are currently seeing. It taps into an inconvenient truth for the Prime Minister: that the current package of measures are probably putting off the inevitable, and that tiered restrictions might slow the increase in cases, but are unlikely to reverse it. Given that inevitability, the Prime Minister had to concede that he "rule[s] out nothing" in tackling the spread of the virus.

Both leaders misrepresented each other's positions

It was a particularly testy exchange between the two leaders, as Keir Starmer referred to Boris Johnson as "someone who's been an opportunist all his life", and the Prime Minister heckled and glared at the Labour leader at the end of their exhange. Both indulged in light misrepresentation of each other's positions: Johnson argued that Starmer wanted to shut schools, when Starmer had said they would stay open under a circuit breaker; while Starmer focused on the baseline of tier three restrictions and Chris Whitty's note of caution that those restrictions won't be enough on their own, without acknowledging that it is understood that local public health leaders will go further when their area is placed into tier three, as Liverpool has done already.

It's a risky business to refer to the Prime Minister as an "experienced father"

Tim Loughton, the Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, asked the PM an earnest question about the decline in health visitors and provisions "to help lockdown babies catch up". But it was undermined by his opening reference to the Prime Minister as an "experienced father", which met with loud and derisive laughter in the chamber, including on the Conservative back benches...

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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