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26 January 2022

What we learned from this week’s PMQs

Despite the launch of a police investigation, Boris Johnson has abandoned his tone of contrition.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer played things straight…

There was obvious fodder for cake-related humour at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, but the Labour leader chose a deliberately restrained and serious tone for his questioning after the Metropolitan Police confirmed yesterday that it is conducting a formal criminal investigation into the alleged Downing Street parties. The feeling privately among the Labour team was that this would not be a good moment for gags. They chose an approach that underlined the party’s view that this is a serious moment for our democracy and that the public mood is shifting, with little appetite for jokes as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies. Starmer decried the “shameful spectacle” of a sitting prime minister subject to a police investigation.

…and explained why the police decision to investigate matters

The Labour leader was careful to outline why the police’s decision to investigate the information provided by Sue Gray already matters, even before we know the outcome of the investigation. The police decision to investigate means that on the basis of the information they already have, “those involved knew or ought to have known what they were doing was an offence, and there was little ambiguity around the absence of any reasonable defence”. While the Conservatives are keen to withhold judgement until the police’s investigation is concluded, Labour is determined to show that simply meeting the threshold for a police investigation is already serious enough.

Boris Johnson has abandoned his tone of contrition

The Prime Minister, meanwhile, met Starmer’s questions with a combative approach, dismissing questions about the “partygate” scandal as a matter of ongoing investigation and ditching the tone of contrition that has characterised his most recent PMQs appearances. He even allowed himself a chuckle about the scandal: “I don’t know who’s been eating more cake,” he jibed at the SNP’s Ian Blackford.

Johnson defiantly called Starmer “relentlessly opportunistic” and defended the government’s record on coronavirus vaccines, on NHS backlogs, on Brexit, and told the Labour leader he needed to “raise his game” to focus on the crisis building at Ukraine’s border. “Of course he wants me out of the way,” Johnson remarked. “For all sorts of reasons many people may want me out of the way…” This was the fighting spirit of a Prime Minister who believes he can hang on, despite it all.

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And Conservative MPs were buoyant and loud

Tory MPs were louder than ever in their heckles and cheers in support of the Prime Minister this afternoon, even as he faced questions over the ongoing police investigation, Sue Gray’s inquiry and whether he misled parliament. Despite the new and serious developments, Boris Johnson seemed on a safer footing this week than last, or the week before. His determination to hang on despite the odds could bear fruit.

[See also: Boris Johnson is entering his moment of greatest peril]

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