Five things we learned from this week’s PMQs

For the Conservatives, borrowing is no longer a dirty word, and the SNP believes it can protect its Achilles’ heel. 

 

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For the Tories, borrowing is no longer a dirty word...

Opening the session, Philip Dunne, the Conservative MP for Ludlow — a Shropshire seat that has borne the brunt of recent flooding — asked the Prime Minister whether he would commit to using the upcoming Budget and Spending Review to invest more in infrastructure and, specifically, flood defences. 

Johnson, of course, answered enthusiastically in the affirmative — as he always has done when asked about infrastructure investment in the regions. Committing the millions that the Prime Minister promised Dunne — before one even considers the raft of other infrastructure projects in the pipeline — will mean more borrowing. Yet that is something this Conservative government, and particularly its new Chancellor, is very much willing to do. It’s as if the 2010 parliament never happened. 

...but it will need to yield tangible results by 2024

Jeremy Corbyn’s six questions also focused on the floods — but unlike Dunn, the Labour leader was in no mood to treat Johnson to underarm bowling. He repeatedly attacked the “part-time” Prime Minister for “turning his back” on the afflicted and attending a Tory fundraiser rather than the affected areas — just as he did, according to Corbyn, during the 2011 London riots — and his government for its haphazard preparation and investment in flood defences. 

Attacks on Johnson’s character did not yield the rewards that Labour had hoped, and anticipated, during last year’s election campaign, and nor did a less than speedy response to floods then. But, as Corbyn wasted no time in pointing out, several Tory MPs from Yorkshire — particularly badly hit — have complained about the Prime Minister’s conduct this week. They will be hoping that promises of “levelling up” on infrastructure materialise before 2024, lest attacks like Corbyn’s look grounded in reality. 

The SNP thinks it can protect its Achilles’ heel 

When it comes to making the case for Scottish independence, no wicket is stickier for the SNP than economics. Would leaving the UK mean decades of punitive austerity or a financial crash? What’s Nicola Sturgeon planning to do to prevent this? Can she? These are questions the SNP knows it must answer as convincingly as it has managed to own the narrative on Brexit. 

Ian Blackford, the party’s Westminster leader, revealed one way the SNP believes it can do so this afternoon: linking the two issues. In his first question, he asked Johnson why he objected to a Scotland-only visa, given that most businesses north of the border employed at least one EU national. “EU migration is crucial to Scotland’s economy,” Blackford stressed. 

Linking questions of identity to the economics of separation will be crucial if the Yes campaign is to avoid the pitfalls that befell it in 2014. 

The No 10 machine isn’t all that well-oiled

Martin Docherty-Hughes, another SNP MP, took Johnson to task over Andrew Sabisky — the Downing Street adviser who quit amid a furore over past comments on eugenics last week. 

At the time, Johnson’s spokesman could not say — or refused to say — whether the Prime Minister disagreed with Sabisky’s views. Today, Johnson denounced them without equivocation or hesitation. Many Tories will be worried by just how long it took him to give an answer that could have been provided immediately. 

The Troubles spell trouble for the government 

Towards the end of the session, Jack Lopresti — an otherwise impeccable loyalist — warned Johnson that he risked selling out military veterans over prosecutions of Troubles personnel for alleged offences in Northern Ireland during the conflict. 

Johnson repeated a familiar pledge: that the government was committed to introducing legislation that would protect veterans from “vexatious” prosecutions when no new evidence had been produced. Yet the Stormont executive was reformed on the condition that Troubles legacy proposals, which would do no such thing, were passed within 100 days. Nor would Johnson say whether his new legislation would cover Northern Ireland. 

Wise Tories have always noted that historical prosecutions animate their party to an extent rivalled only by Brexit. Johnson won’t be able to continue speaking out of both sides of his mouth forever — and when he picks one, he might find his backbenchers very angry indeed.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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