For all its multiple faults, there are days when PMQs does provide a forum where the most intense political issues are illuminated. And then there are other days when it struggles hard to get much beyond the ‘so what’ territory. Today was closer to the latter category. Despite all talk of unease on the Tory benches (see 10.17am), not a peep emerged. The Black Lives Matters protests did come up, but only in a relatively perfunctory manner. And the Boris Johnson/Keir Starmer exchanges – normally the highlight – were inconclusive. Neither was particularly good.
Starmer seems to view PMQs as a war of attrition; he shows no interest in flash, ‘knockout blow’ moments, preferring a steady stream that portray the opposition as measured and sensible, and Johnson as negligent. Mostly this has worked well, but it did not particularly today. He devoted his first two questions to asking why measures in reports weren’t being implemented. But they are, claimed Johnson. This may be wishful thinking, but it was not contested by Starmer, and a viewer without prior knowledge may have been left wondering if Johnson had a point.
Starmer’s best question was his third, about the death numbers. He was calm and factual, and his question – “there’s no pride in these numbers, is there?” – was unanswerable. Johnson’s response was particularly poor. If No 10 really thinks it will be able to hold off addressing this issue for the rest of the year just by claiming it’s too early to make international comparisons, it is likely to be disappointed.
Johnson’s best moments came when Starmer asked about schools, and Johnson was able to accuse Labour of inconsistency – arguing for continued closures earlier, complaining about continued closures now. This is not wholly fair – Labour’s argument is that a more consensual approach was needed to facilitate school opening – but defending a nuanced position is never straightforward, and by the standards of political sloganising rather than high-grade logic, Johnson’s charge was true enough to stick. It was also interesting to see him use Starmer’s profession against him. Generally commentators have taken the view the Starmer’s lawyerly precision (we are not allowed call him “forensic” any more, the cliché police have ruled) is a bonus, but Johnson now seems to running the line that, because Starmer is a barrister, he will just say whatever is convenient to his case.
Johnson actually had an announcement to make: a £63m welfare programme for schools. But the way he raised it, it was hard to tell whether or not this was anything new. If this was supposed to give him good ammunition to use against Starmer, it did not work out.
The best question of the day was probably Kirsty Blackman’s. (See 12.28pm.) But even that did not generate a memorable answer. It was that sort of PMQs.