Keir Starmer was forced to avoid the most pressing topic in politics during his weekly bust-up with the Prime Minister today, as PMQs largely acted as a preamble to the Chancellor’s Spring Statement. Any question about Rishi Sunak’s announcements would have led Boris Johnson to simply defer to that afternoon’s statement, as the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford quickly found out.
So Starmer wisely stuck to another topic. He used his six questions to try to skewer Johnson on the sackings of 800 P&O ferry workers replaced last week (17 March) with agency workers – some of whom are reported to be earning less than £2 an hour. Johnson said he condemned the “callous behaviour” of P&O Ferries and argued the company had broken the law. While his performance was less assured than in recent weeks, Starmer attempted to channel his penchant for demotic speech, asking Johnson why he thought workers should “take a crumb of comfort from his half-arsed bluster and waffle today”. “Half-arsed” is not a phrase you usually hear in the House of Commons.
Starmer pointed to a loophole in minimum wage legislation that allowed P&O to pay its workers below the National Living Wage. While Johnson promised to ensure that people who “work in the UK exclusive economic zone get paid the living wage as people do in the rest of the country”, Starmer said the PM had made the same promise two years ago.
The fundamental issues at present are when the government was told about the sackings and whether P&O has broken the law. Starmer claimed today that Johnson was sent a memo in advance of the announcement, but Johnson said he only became aware of the sackings on the day it was made public. What Johnson knew when will be an important point as wrangling over the behaviour of P&O continues.
With the Chancellor’s announcements off-limits, other issues were also given the spotlight. A seemingly innocuous question from Angela Richardson, the Conservative MP for Guildford, about young girls facing “gender distress” allowed Johnson to step into the contentious debate on trans rights. He replied that the issue required “extreme sensitivity, tact, love and care”, adding that he thought that “when it comes to distinguishing between a man and a woman that the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”. Perhaps this was a planted question – either way, it allowed Johnson to speak on an issue that animates several of his backbenchers.