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8 January 2020

What we learned from the first PMQs of the 2019 parliament

Boris Johnson wants to give Brexit a human face, and his new MPs want to see the money. 

By Patrick Maguire

Boris Johnson’s big foreign policy mission? Proving Brexit need not mean isolation

Jeremy Corbyn, unsurprisingly, devoted all six of his questions for Boris Johnson to the crisis in Iran. He urged the Prime Minister to abide by international law, and kicked off by asking the question preoccupying many: would the government oppose any further escalation of hostilities?

Johnson gave a reply that, in a nutshell, sums up the sort of line his government will take in public on foreign affairs. The short answer was no. The long answer was that he would work with Britain’s “EU allies” to make it so. 

Later, in response to a question from Labour backbencher Matt Western, he stressed that the Iranian nuclear deal was still a viable vehicle for peace in the region. 

Those responses illuminate one of the Conservative Party’s defining missions over the next five years: proving that Brexit need not be an exercise in narrow, isolationist nationalism. 

Jeremy Corbyn is still an electoral asset for the Conservative Party

Johnson ended his exchange with Corbyn with a perennial favourite — an attack on the Labour leader’s stances on foreign affairs and national security. 

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With theatrical flourish, he noted that Corbyn had not yet endorsed the killing of Qasem Soleimani. The Labour leader’s battered reputation — and, by extension, that of his party — is a bruise the Tories will punch for as long as they can. 

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For the SNP, this parliament is an extended party political broadcast

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, was met by a chorus of groans as he took to his feet — proof that, despite last month’s election result, some things won’t change in the 2019 parliament.

Except, that is, for Scotland’s constitutional status? Blackford’s line of questioning — in which he complained that Scotland was being dragged from the EU against its will — was met by a predictable response from Johnson: no to another referendum on independence. It was a line that got repeated airings in response to other SNP interventions, most of which cited the mandate they won last month. 

That is hardly unexpected, as Blackford well knows. But it’s exchanges such as today’s, which allow them to pit Scotland’s right to self-determination against an intransigent Westminster establishment, that the SNP hope will pave the way to not only a referendum, but a majority for independence. 

The 2019 intake of Tory MPs wants to be shown the money — and Johnson is happy to oblige 

Late in the session, Dehenna Davison — the new Conservative MP for Bishop Auckland, one of the many longtime Labour strongholds that went blue last month — treated Johnson to some underarm bowling. Would he agree to invest in hospitals in her Northumberland constituency?

The answer, predictably, was yes — an early statement of intent from the government. Davison’s question, meanwhile, was a sign that the 2019 intake is determined to see the government makes good on its election rhetoric. 

Bercowism is well and truly dead 

Lindsay Hoyle kicked off today’s session at 11.59am — considerably earlier than his predecessor, who regularly let the preceding question session overrun, ever would. 

It ended, much to the delight of the Tory benches, just 32 minutes later. So surreal was the experience that Michael Fabricant rose to praise Hoyle’s brevity, and, for that matter, the fact he had not “abused” MPs from the chair. 

It’s precisely for those reasons that MPs, and particularly Tories, broke for Hoyle in such huge numbers in October. Add that to his conservative approach to selecting amendments to Brexit legislation and opposition MPs might wonder if every avenue to procedural chicanery slammed shut with Bercow’s departure.