What we learned from this week's PMQs

Boris Johnson has committed to an independent inquiry into the government's Covid response, and four other things we learned.

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Boris Johnson has committed to an independent inquiry into the government's Covid response

The top news from this week's Prime Minister's Questions came in response to a question from the acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, who asked Boris Johnson if he would commit to holding an inquiry into the government's Covid response immediately. The Prime Minister repeated his position that the government doesn't believe an inquiry is an appropriate use of time or resources at this stage in the pandemic, but with a new commitment that: "Of course, we will seek to learn the lessons and certainly we will have an independent inquiry into what happened." It was inevitable, but a notable moment nonetheless. 

Labour has made the aviation industry a priority – with potential risks

Keir Starmer led on a lack of sector-specific support in last week's mini-Budget from the Chancellor, highlighting in particular a failure to support the aviation industry, in which there have been huge numbers of job losses. Over several questions, the Labour leader highlighted British Airways' plans to make 12,000 staff redundant and rehire another 30,000 on worse conditions. The PM, in turn, said he didn't have a "magic wand" to prevent every single job loss, but highlighted existing government schemes designed to encourage job retention. 

It is a risky move by the Labour leader, placing front and centre an area over which his own party appears divided. Starmer has notably declined to call for the state to take shares in airlines that have been bailed out – a measure that has been called for by the shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, and one that would give the government greater leverage in encouraging these companies to move towards lower carbon. Labour is choosing to champion aviation workers, but, in doing so, raising questions about its precise policies on a green economy.

The Conservative back benches remain split over a US trade deal

The tensions between different parts of the Conservative coalition were there for all to see this week, as the Conservative backbencher Rob Butler, MP for Aylesbury, asked for reassurances from the Prime Minister that any future trade with the US will continue to safeguard British farmers, high food standards and animal safety measures (which the PM promptly did reassure him on). It's an example of the delicate line the government must walk to keep different parts of its voter base happy as it embarks on new trade deals: between the traditional Conservative rural constituencies such as Butler's, and the post-industrial "Red Wall" constituencies that the Tories won for the first time last December.

Boris Johnson has a new attack line (and is getting better at PMQs)...

This week's PMQs confirmed a gradual trend we have seen in recent weeks: the Prime Minister has become better at pushing his own narrative across the series of exchanges at PMQs, by making the pivot from the narrow answer to the question to a broader message. He is using it to promote a new attack line against Starmer: that the Labour leader's line of questioning is "knocking the confidence" of the country and that the Labour leader is inconsistent in his approach to supporting or opposing government policy. The Prime Minister is harnessing humour more effectively than before, accusing Starmer of having "more briefs than Calvin Klein". It's a tricky narrative for an opposition hell-bent on getting the tricky balance of support and scrutiny just right for a time of crisis.

...but Labour can still get the Prime Minister on detail

Labour had an easy win when Starmer asked the PM if he had read the report forecasting a worst-case scenario of 120,000 deaths in a second wave of the virus. The Prime Minister replied that he was "aware" of it.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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