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20 April 2022

Six things we learned at Prime Minister’s Questions

Boris Johnson is in an awkward position, and Keir Starmer doesn't want to talk about Rwanda.

By Ailbhe Rea

1. The ghost of Allegra Stratton haunts Boris Johnson

Allegra Stratton’s tearful resignation from Downing Street in December continues to make for an uncomfortable comparison with Boris Johnson’s own response to being found to have broken the law by the Metropolitan Police. Keir Starmer began PMQs by asking the Prime Minister why Stratton resigned, and proceeded to point out the other people who stood down for rule-breaking while Johnson remains in place. Lots of Conservatives feel privately that Stratton was badly treated, so this was an awkward one for Johnson.

2. Labour doesn’t want to talk about the Rwanda policy

The Labour leader avoided asking the Prime Minister about the Rwanda resettlement policy for asylum seekers, instead using the recent public debate around that policy to pivot to asking Johnson to apologise for reportedly criticising the Archbishop of Canterbury and the BBC in a private meeting with Conservative MPs. It was a sign that — despite strong criticism from Labour of the Rwanda resettlement policy whenever it comes up — immigration remains an uncomfortable topic for the party, and one it steers clear of when it has the choice.

3. Keir Starmer is more comfortable than ever denouncing Jeremy Corbyn

There was a tell-tale aside from the Labour leader in response to Johnson calling him a “Corbynista in an Islington suit” (a taunt — from a former Islington resident — designed to gently push the buttons of Starmer, who lives in Camden). “I think you’ll find Mr Corbyn doesn’t have the whip,” Starmer noted, more confident than ever leaning into the rift with his predecessor, and the left of his party, and signalling to voters a break from Labour’s recent past.

4. Johnson can dish it out but he can’t take it

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Johnson was seriously ruffled by the framing of Starmer’s question about his reported criticism of the BBC (he is said to have complained that the BBC has been more critical of him than of Vladimir Putin), with the Labour leader listing the names of BBC journalists who have been risking their lives to cover the war in Ukraine. “How can the prime minister claim to be a patriot when he deliberately attacks and degrades the institutions of our great country?” Starmer asked, again trying to strike a traditional, patriotic tone and interpreting Johnson’s complaints about the BBC’s coverage of the Rwanda plan as criticism of the broadcaster’s hugely respected work in Ukraine.

Johnson, visibly angered by the question, insisted that he “said no such thing” and asked Starmer to withdraw the remarks, adding: “He must be out of his tiny mind.” It was a glimpse of Johnson’s displeasure when tactics he has been known to use at PMQs before, in much more extreme ways, are turned back on him.

5. The Prime Minister is safe, but under pressure

Johnson is safe in his position without any Conservative leadership contenders to challenge him. But his backbenchers, particularly those from Red Wall constituencies, are growing angsty about holding onto their seats at the next election. That was on obvious display today, with Johnson facing bid after bid from Red Wall MPs asking for funding for new hospitals, new infrastructure, or more grants from the levelling up fund. After winning a huge majority in 2019, Johnson is under pressure to maintain it by delivering on the promises of that election.

6. Nick Fletcher’s oneman campaign for a “minister for men” continues

Nick Fletcher, the MP for Don Valley, was one of those asking the Prime Minister for more investment for his constituency, but only in passing: his main demand was for a “minister for men” to address men’s health issues. Fletcher has previously expressed concern about women playing leading roles in Dr Who and Ghostbusters, suggesting a possible link with rising crime levels among young men.

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