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4 March 2020

Three things we learned from this week’s PMQs

Labour believes the government’s response to coronavirus could disprove its claim to be working on behalf of ordinary people.

By Patrick Maguire

Labour believes coronavirus might end Boris Johnson’s honeymoon 

In one respect, Jeremy Corbyn’s six questions were same old, same old: they focused on the NHS, welfare, the self-employed, zero-hour contracts and police cuts. What set them apart from those asked in weeks past, however, was the golden thread linking them all: the outbreak of Covid-19. 

Did the NHS have adequate resources to deal with an epidemic? Would it get more? Was it true that murder investigations could be halted in the event that police forces became overwhelmed? Would Universal Credit claimants and the self-employed lose out if they self-isolated?

Similarly, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked whether financial assistance would be available to the self-employed and casual workers — just as Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has pledged assistance to the markets. 

Labour believes the answers to these questions will, in time, disprove the government’s claim to be working on behalf of ordinary people. 

Priti Patel is safe — for now

Despite revelations in this morning’s Financial Times that Priti Patel stands accused of bullying a third civil servant, there is no sign that Downing Street is about to disown Home Secretary. Upon her arrival in the chamber, Chancellor Rishi Sunak made a point of embracing Patel. Then she took her place beside the Prime Minister for the duration of the session. When Jeremy Corbyn used his final questions to ask whether there would be an independent investigation into Patel, Johnson launched into a lengthy defence. 

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When Labour’s Matthew Pennycook also sought clarity on whether Patel would be dismissed in the event that a Cabinet Office inquiry into her conduct found she had indeed bullied officials, the Prime Minister dodged the question. But the real answer was on the Treasury bench: Patel will be secure in her position for some time yet. 

Government greenwashing is stepping up a gear

Environmental policy has loomed large in the Labour leadership contest — and just about every one of the party’s warring factions agree that it is an area in which they stand a decent chance of outflanking the Conservatives. 

Boris Johnson is determined to prevent them doing so. After all, socially-liberal voters are his Achilles’ heel — and without the fear of Corbyn to keep them blue, many marginals in the south of England could prove vulnerable to the Liberal Democrats. 

So it is no surprise that the government is stepping up its efforts to own the environmental agenda. In response to a softball question from new Tory MP Claire Countinho, a former Treasury special adviser, Johnson welcomed the news that UK carbon emissions fell by a third over the last decade — and revealed he would be chairing weekly meetings of a new cabinet committee on climate change.