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2 February 2022

What we learned from this week’s PMQs

The convention preventing MPs from accusing each other of lying is proving unfit for the Boris Johnson era.

By Ailbhe Rea

The Speaker is struggling in a climate of untruth in parliament
Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, began Prime Minister’s Questions with a statement about how accusations of lying are handled within the chamber, after he expelled Ian Blackford, the leader of the SNP in Westminster, from the Commons yesterday for refusing to withdraw his accusations that Boris Johnson lied over Downing Street parties. The Speaker reiterated the policy that MPs cannot accuse each other of lying, emphasising that this has been “the longstanding practice of the House” under successive Speakers. He explained that, at present, the only way for MPs to address mistruths by other members is by bringing a motion before the Commons. He did, however, nod to the fact that many MPs are finding this convention unfit for the practices of the Boris Johnson era, when the Prime Minister can make false accusations with impunity but other MPs cannot accuse him of lying for doing do. “It’s not for me to change the practice unilaterally,” Hoyle said, noting that it could, in theory, be changed by MPs themselves, perhaps after a report by the procedure committee.

Boris Johnson doubled down on his false Jimmy Savile claim
A cloud hung over today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, after Johnson repeated an internet conspiracy theory that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile while Director of Public Prosecutions. The Labour leader, without repeating the claim itself, attacked Johnson for those remarks head-on, and began by reminding Conservative MPs that theirs is the party of Winston Churchill. “Our parties stood together as we defeated fascism,” Starmer said. “Now their leader stands in the House of Commons parroting the conspiracy theories of violent fascists to try and score cheap political points.” Johnson has been under pressure to withdraw his remark from some Conservative MPs, who see it as a dangerous new low for misinformation in public discourse, but Johnson stood by his claims, to cheers from the benches behind him. Many will see those cheers as a further low for the Conservative Party.

[See also: No blow is too low for Boris Johnson – even when he’s apologising]

Labour is keen to pivot to economic arguments…
Starmer focused his questions not on parties and police investigations, but on tax increases under the Conservatives, trying as much as he could to weave Labour’s bigger economic arguments into his interrogation. He outlined the key Labour attack line that the Conservatives have become the party of low growth and high taxes to compensate for that low growth, as well as the party of waste and cronyism. Johnson’s response, framing tax increases as a result of the pandemic and reminding voters at home of Liam Byrne’s notorious “there’s no money left” note as Labour left power, gave a sense of how the bigger political argument will shape up in the months and years ahead. The Conservatives will be arguing that economic hardships today are the result of the “unprecedented economic crisis” of the pandemic, while Labour will argue our woes are caused by a decade of economic mismanagement under the Tories. Labour has been inching up in the polls on economic credibility in recent weeks, and the leadership sees this metric as crucial to winning the next election.

… and Labour wants to keep Rishi Sunak in the frame
Starmer was careful to direct his attacks on the Conservative economic approach at both Johnson and Rishi Sunak, referring to the Chancellor, who was absent, repeatedly throughout the exchange. “He and his Chancellor are the Tory Thelma and Louise, hand in hand as they drive the country off the cliff and into the abyss,” Starmer quipped. It shows that Labour is careful to keep Sunak, a likely successor to Johnson, in the frame. It was also a reminder that if Johnson goes down he could well take Sunak with him.

[See also: What would a Sunak government look like? Even the Chancellor doesn’t know]

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