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30 September 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:59am

What we learned when Boris Johnson faced Keir Starmer at PMQs

One rebellion is off while another is brewing, and what else we learned at this week's Prime Minister's Questions

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer has Rishi Sunak in his sights, as well as Boris Johnson

Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions represented a small but notable change of tack from the Labour leader. Until now, Keir Starmer has used his weekly exchange with Boris Johnson to prosecute an argument that the Prime Minister is incompetent, insufficiently on top of the detail and leading a failing government. But today, the Labour leader was careful to include Rishi Sunak in his criticisms as well. After a question about a failure of economic support to underpin the new health guidance, Starmer delivered a clearly pre-written line that it was interesting to see the Prime Minister having to defend his Chancellor too, for a change. It points to a wider reality: Labour knows it isn’t enough to simply target Johnson. As discontent grows on his own backbenches and Conservative MPs begin to whisper that Johnson might not last the full parliamentary term, the Labour leadership knows it needs to widen its approach to take in Johnson’s potential successor, too. 

Both leaders are still gaming the PMQs format

It is a common criticism of Prime Minister’s Questions that party leaders in the internet era simply use their appearances to generate clips that can be taken out of context for social media. It is also widely accepted in political circles that, in theory, a Prime Minister should never “lose” PMQs, because he or she always has the last word. Starmer tried to prevent both this week by following five questions about the government’s coronavirus response with an unexpected one about Black History Month and disproportionate deaths in pregnancy and childbirth among black women, who are five times more likely to die in these circumstances than other women in the UK. The Prime Minister gave a brief reply and visibly calculated whether he could give his prepared barnstorming final answer about the opposition’s approach to coronavirus anyway. He promptly did, with no attempt to make a convincing pivot from the question to the his totally unrelated prepared comments. It made for a bizarre answer, but, with no right of reply for Starmer, the Prime Minister looks likely to still get the clip he wanted.

Conservative MPs are increasingly restless over planning reform

For the second week in a row, an unhappy Conservative backbencher signalled their discontent over the government’s impending reforms to planning rules. Harriett Baldwin, an ex-minister who was sacked by Johnson at the start of his premiership, asked the PM to commit to changing elements of the planning reforms that risk “concreting down rather than levelling up”, with a gentle jibe about this “dare I say it, algorithim”. There was a small flash of annoyance from the Prime Minister in response, as he declined to commit to any changes. It is a likely area of Tory rebellion in the coming weeks.

The rebellion is off, but the government must compromise

The Speaker delivered a rare statement at the beginning of the exchange, telling the government that it had treated parliament in a “totally unsatisfactory” manner and with “contempt” during the coronavirus pandemic. He explained that, for reasons of clarity, he can’t select the amendments that could have potentially given rise to a government defeat this evening, but his intervention only increases the likelihood that the government will be forced to agree with rebels in its own party that parliament will, indeed, be allowed to vote on new coronavirus legislation before it becomes law. 

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