For in recent days the Commons has been unusually quiet, with ministers and members of Parliament doing all they can to be polite and to cooperate with each other. Partly because there were so few people in the hall that theaters are losing their edge, but mainly because MPs from all parties are genuinely terrified of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic. Scoring cheap points is a waste of time when thousands of people die every day.
Needless to say, however, that all changed with Boris Johnson on Prime Ministers Questions. It’s not just the defensive and combative tone that Johnson is handling the session with: this is perhaps understandable given that he has a lot going on on the defensive side and Boriss’s first instinct when under pressure has it has always been to pick on others and blame others. What really sticks to her throat is the lack of regret and remorse in her voice. His inability to accept the slightest blame for his government’s response to the Covid crisis is borderline sociopathic.
Johnson started with a quick U-turn. On Monday, he said there was no 24/7 vaccination request. Now he was telling us that they would soon be flown. But it was when Keir Starmer walked through the recent government calendar that Boris resorted to swagger and outright lies. He seemed to have forgotten that Matt Hancock spoke in the House of Commons about the new variant two days before Boris announced that there would be no lockdown and that Christmas would go on as usual at PMQs. Since then, the government has consistently done too little and too late, and Johnson has been unable to explain why this third lockdown was less severe than the first when the pandemic was now even worse.
Perhaps the strangest exchange took place when the Labor leader switched to free school meals and Johnson simply accused Starmer of being worse to underline how shitty the government had been than Marcus Rashford. It is not the best defense of government policy. Keir had done his homework, however, and pointed out that the 30 free school meals worth about five years were more or less in line with Department of Education guidelines. Give or take a can of sweetcorn.
At that point, Boris gave up not answering questions and embarked on a long rant about the failures of the work that the President had to interrupt and put an end to his action. It hadn’t been a vintage performance by Starmer, he still rather fights when Johnson basically ignores him, but it had been enough to expose most prime ministers to more disturbing pathologies.
There were fewer hiding places offered for Johnson during his two-hour appearance before the Liaison Committee, the select committee chairmen supergroup, as he faced more detailed questions about his handling of the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU. While that obviously didn’t stop Boris from indulging in his favorite pastime of endless pointless digressions designed to mask his lack of straightforward answers.
Not that Johnson doesn’t seem to have put more effort into preparing for this committee meeting. Now that Dominic Cummings is off the stage, it feels like his new team of advisers at No.10 have told him he needs to prepare more for these events. Especially by just being more polite and trying to sound interested in what you’re asked. His standard answer to most questions about the coronavirus was that the vaccine will eventually sort things out. He had less to say about his government’s record over the past 10 months because it has always done too little, too late. Her desperate need to be loved by not imposing restrictions may well have caused thousands of unnecessary deaths.
When the pressure came, Johnson again disowned his government’s guidelines on free school meals and agreed with Robert Halfon and Catherine McKinnell that what had been provided by some contractors had been pitiful. He also appeared not to hear McKinnell ask if he regretted saying once that Donald Trump should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe even Boris finds it hard to believe he could ever have said something so absurd.
Works Stephen Timms was able to deduce that the 20 universal credit increase would not be extended beyond April, but as so often it was Yvette Cooper who really managed to get under her skin. There is no love lost between the two and Johnson is self-aware enough to realize that in a direct fight he will always come out worse. He therefore opted for damage limitation while Cooper challenged him on his lack of action on the South African and Brazilian variants.
Currently, Cooper has observed that it is possible for anyone to travel to the UK from both of these destinations and travel by public transport without testing negative for coronavirus. Or indeed, unlikely that someone will check to see if you have isolated yourself when you get home. Boris simply mumbled that he was taking action over and over again before mentioning the vaccine again.
After that, the fait accompli of the British exit from the EU was more like an afterthought. Hilary Benn pointed out that many supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland were empty due to increased bureaucracy. Boris managed to contradict himself by saying that the flow of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland had never been so smooth, which is why goods were flying off supermarket shelves, but all lingering issues would soon be resolved. Let the good times roll.
Subsequently, the session ended instead. Particularly because Bill Cash was so laudatory for the man who saved the country from the evil EU empire that the only question he could ask himself was: Please tell us why you are so wonderful. Something Johnson was happy to do at length. After all, it’s his favorite subject.
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