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23 February 2022

What we learned from this week’s PMQs

The Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s refusal to allow a question about Boris Johnson’s comments on Muslim women stunned MPs.

By Ailbhe Rea

Political donations are the next big battle

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer jostled to appear prime ministerial and authoritative at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, each trying to strike a calm, united tone as Russia invades Ukraine. Below the surface both were keen to exchange political blows, with the Labour leader pointedly asking about “Russian money in the UK and politics”, punching the bruise of Kremlin-linked donations to the Conservative Party without doing so explicitly (a baton later taken up by the SNP’s Ian Blackford and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas).

Johnson hit back by saying that the single largest donation to the Labour party came from a member of the Chinese Communist Party, to roars of support from his backbenchers. This may not be entirely accurate (Downing Street has since specified that he meant donations since 2016) but it shows that the controversy over CCP-linked funding for staff for the Labour MP Barry Gardiner is not going away, and suggests the shape of the coming debate over political donations: opposition parties will highlight Russia-linked money for the Conservatives, and the Tories will hit back with accusations of China-linked money for Labour.

Nadine Dorries has asked Ofcom to review Russia Today

The Prime Minister confirmed during PMQs that Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, had written to the broadcasting regulator Ofcom asking it to review the licence of Russia Today, the Russian state-owned TV network. Her letter was released on Twitter by the Times while Johnson spoke. Yet when Starmer asked why the government hadn’t yet intervened in relation to the network, Dorries heckled him, apparently saying “because we believe in free speech”, before Johnson confirmed that the review had been requested. One Labour figure texted to remark: “I don’t think she had any idea the government had just sent a letter from her to Ofcom asking for it to be reviewed…”

The Speaker is continuing to struggle with the Johnson era 

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Lindsay Hoyle interrupted a question by the Labour MP Imran Hussain about allegations of Islamophobia against Mark Spencer, the former Conservative chief whip who was recently made Leader of the House, which means he is responsible for overseeing the parliamentary complaints procedure despite himself being under investigation by the Conservative Party over the allegations against him.

Hussain asked for an explanation of why Spencer had been given this new role, why he had got a “promotion” despite his alleged behaviour, and began to raise Johnson’s own comments about Muslim women. But the Speaker cut the MP for Bradford East off, telling him “this isn’t the appropriate place” to raise the issue, and moved on to the next question without allowing an answer.

Hoyle has struggled in recent weeks to navigate misinformation and allegations of lying in the chamber, permitting Johnson’s Jimmy Savile smear against Keir Starmer but dismissing the SNP’s Ian Blackford from the chamber for calling the Prime Minister a liar. Hoyle’s response to today’s question — and lack of explanation for his decision — has baffled MPs. We can expect the Speaker to clarify his reasoning eventually, but this was yet another example of parliamentary conventions straining under the pressures of the politically fraught Johnson era. 

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