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9 February 2022

Five things we learned from this week’s PMQs

Despite pandering to his back benches on Covid restrictions, Boris Johnson isn't out of the woods yet.

By Ailbhe Rea

1. Boris Johnson is pandering to his back benches on Covid restrictions

Boris Johnson began Prime Minister’s Questions by announcing that after recess (which ends on 21 February), he plans to come back to the House of Commons to announce that he will be ending all Covid-19 restrictions a month early. It is an announcement hand picked to please the Conservative backbenches (as well as sitting happily with the Prime Minister’s own preferences on restrictions) as Johnson attempts to stabilise his position after a choppy few months for his leadership.

2. Johnson repeated his threats on the Northern Ireland protocol

Johnson was challenged by one of his own backbenchers, Gareth Bacon, and by the DUP’s Ian Paisley to resolve issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. Johnson responded by warning once more that “of course” he will pull the trigger on Article 16, which allows the UK to unilaterally introduce safeguard measures, if “our friends” in the EU do not apply “common sense” in fixing the protocol.

3. Labour is keeping Rishi Sunak within its field of vision

The Labour strategy of hitting the Conservatives on their economic approach and the cost of living crisis continued this week, and Starmer continued to target both Johnson and Rishi Sunak, his most likely successor. The Labour leader quipped about “the loan shark Chancellor and his unwitting sidekick” and told Johnson that “he could stand up to his Chancellor, tell him to support families rather than loading them with debt”. While the Conservative Party continues to be rocked by the Partygate scandal, Labour is intent on having its criticisms of Sunak’s energy tax “rebate” scheme heard by the public as part of its wider argument that the Conservatives are a low growth, high tax party prone to wasting taxpayers’ money. Beating the Conservatives on economic credibility remains a priority for Labour if it is to win the next election.

4. Johnson isn’t out of the woods yet

The Prime Minister was asked a number of sympathetic questions by several Conservative figures who might have been expected to cause him some trouble while his leadership falters, such as Harriett Baldwin and Robert Halfon, former ministers who aren’t known as fans of the Johnson government and who have rebelled on occasions in the past.

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But Johnson isn’t entirely out of the woods yet. Another in that cohort of disgruntled former ministers, Mark Harper, chief whip under David Cameron, pressed the Prime Minister to commit to publishing Sue Gray’s report in full when it is completed. Johnson, irritated by the question, said: “I will immediately publish, in full, whatever Sue Gray gives me.”

5. Johnson inadvertently acknowledged the link between the Iranian debt and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

While the focus remains on Johnson’s position, the cost of living crisis and the mood of Conservative backbenchers, two Labour MPs pressed the Prime Minister on the continued detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran. Tulip Siddiq, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s MP, urged the Prime Minister to meet her and Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe (“I don’t want to meet his staff, I want to meet him”) and to commit to paying debt owed to Iran. Johnson responded by saying that his government continued to do all it could to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, but what was telling was his explanation that it is “difficult to settle” the debt owed to Iran due to sanctions against the country.

It has always been understood that the debt, owed over an arms deal before the Iranian Revolution, is the obstacle to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, but it is not government policy to acknowledge that link because the UK does not accept British citizens being used as diplomatic leverage.

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