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20 January 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:22pm

What we learned from a tech-disrupted PMQs

In between technology disasters and bad hair days, here's what we learned at this week's Prime Minister's Questions.

By Ailbhe Rea

If this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions is remembered at all, it will not be for the content of the answers, but for a series of technical issues, strange camera angles and gaffes. But in between the errors, here is what we learned:

Keir Starmer is playing to his strengths…

The Labour leader focused his questions on the fallout from hundreds of thousands of police records being deleted from UK-wide databases. Keir Starmer asked the “simple questions” that “any prime Mmnister” would have wanted to establish immediately, seeking to embarrass Boris Johnson for not being in full possession of the facts, while highlighting his own experience as director of public prosecutions. In other words, Starmer was hoping to highlight the difference between an organised, autoritative leader with direct experience of the workings of the criminal justice system, and a less detailed-oriented Prime Minister  

… but maybe missing the point

Boris Johnson didn’t quite answer Starmer’s questions about the numbers of criminal investigations affected by this error, or exactly how long it will take to restore the files, but the whole exchange descended into a confusing “he said/she said” squabble over figures, with Starmer unable to land a decisive blow. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister actually told Starmer off for not asking about the more pressing issue of the terribly serious point the UK has reached in the pandemic, with hospitals under strain and the death rate currently the highest in the world. Johnson would, of course, have criticised the Labour leader for not being constructive if that had been his line of questioning, but it highlighted the problem with choosing a topic where it is easier to scrutinise the government, at the potential cost of missing the most important issue.

Conservatives are still pressing for government action on flood defences

Nearly a year on since flooding last dominated PMQs with Boris Johnson, Conservative MPs still need to see their government take further action on flood defences. The MP for Stafford, Theo Clarke, used her question to highlight the issue, not explicitly criticising the government, but asking for support for a local project. The PM, clearly briefed in advance, took the opportunity to share details of local work in Clarke’s constituency, and announced an emergency Cobra meeting on the floods to take place later today. In that respect, at least, the Prime Minister has learned from the mistakes of a year ago. 

[see also: How floods divided Britain]

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The government is planning ahead for vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants

Boris Johnson committed to Conservative MP Neil O’Brien that the medicines regulator the MHRA will be able to approve modified vaccines as quickly as required if there are new variants of Covid-19, like that from South Africa, that are potentially more resistant to the vaccine. He also confirmed he has held meetings on the issue today. Sky’s Sam Coates reports that MHRA approval could come after as little as 40 days of an application. 

Johnson is still dodging questions about the Irish Sea border

Claire Hanna, the MP for South Belfast, put it to the Prime Minister that every political party in Northern Ireland, as well as everyone involved in logistics and retail, has highlighted the disruption to supply caused by the new Irish Sea border post-Brexit, while the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continues to deny that a border exists and described it as a “Covid problem”. Hanna called on the Prime Minister to “be straight with the people of Northern Ireland” as “a start”. He responded by dodging the question, quoting a trade statistic showing there is more port trade between an NI port and GB than between a Dublin port and GB, “because it is going so smoothly”. 

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[see also: Is the government’s Brexit deal any good? Even Boris Johnson can’t tell you]