Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) often leads to some spirited exchanges, but yesterday’s (28 April) saw the prime minister get particularly agitated.
After a week or so of scandals and allegations of misconduct within government dominating the news agenda, Sir Keir Starmer was always likely to cause the PM some trouble.
The resulting encounter between Johnson and Starmer was among the most heated in recent times, with members on both sides loudly weighing in despite their significantly reduced presence in the chamber due to social distancing requirements.
What did Keir Starmer ask about?
There was no danger of Starmer being thin on material when preparing his questions this week, with various scandals currently ongoing, but it was allegations that Tory donors funded a lavish refurb of the PM’s flat which Starmer opted for.
He could have focussed on Johnson’s alleged comments back in October, about ‘letting the bodies pile high’ rather than implementing another lockdown, or allegations that the PM gave the European Super League proposal the greenlight just days before publicly condemning it.
Starmer’s first question, perhaps to test the water, was about the lockdown comments, but Johnson’s firm answer on this may have persuaded Starmer to change course.
Starmer did briefly respond to the PM’s denial that he had made the comments, noting that knowingly misleading Parliament means a minister should resign, before ominously stating that, “there will be further on this, believe you me”.
The remainder of his questions all focused on the refurb story, the key element of which was whether the works were originally paid for by Conservative donors only for the PM to later cover the cost.
Starmer asked: “Who initially —and “initially” is the key word here—paid for the redecoration of his Downing Street flat?”
Johnson replied making reference to a mistake Starmer had made in Parliament a few weeks before, and the difference in council tax rates between Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative councils.But, he also offered the first of a few carefully worded denials.
He said: “I paid for Downing Street refurbishment personally. Any further declaration that I have to make—if any—I will be advised upon by Lord Geidt.”
Starmer’s questions remained tightly focused on this issue throughout the remainder of the session, prompting growing frustration from Johnson.
What did Boris Johnson say?
As he became more angered by Starmer’s perseverance with his line of questioning, the PM began to become visibly frustrated and bit-back harder against the opposition leader.
Johnson accused Starmer of asking questions which are of little importance or interest to people outside Westminster, rather than supposedly substantive issues.
He said: “ I think people will find it absolutely bizarre that he is focusing on this issue, when what people want to know is what plans a Labour Government might have to improve the lives of people in this country.”
The exchange carried on along similar lines, with Starmer pressing on who initially paid the invoice for the refurbishment works, and asking whether, as widely reported, Tory donor Lord Brownlow has agreed to pay £58,000 toward the refurbishment.
Johnson insisted that he had acted in accordance with the rules and that the costs of the works have been met by him personally.
Toward the end of the exchange, both men were visibly frustrated, although Johnson was the most animated of the pair, gesticulating wildly and raising his voice considerably.
The final part of the exchange was the most heated, the transcript of which is below.
Starmer: “Can I remind the Prime Minister of the Nolan principles, which are meant to govern the behaviour of those in public office? They are these: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Instead, what do we get from this Prime Minister and this Conservative Government? Dodgy contracts, jobs for their mates and cash for access. And who is at the heart of it? The Prime Minister. Major Sleaze, sitting there.
“Meanwhile—the Prime Minister talks about priorities—crime is going up, NHS waiting lists are at record levels and millions of people are worried about their jobs, including at Liberty Steel. Do not the British people deserve a Prime Minister they can trust, not a Government who are mired in sleaze, cronyism and scandal?”
Johnson: “Last week, the right hon. and learned Gentleman came to this Chamber and he attacked me for talking to James Dyson about ventilators, when we are now sending ventilators to help the people of India, and the following day—the following day—Labour Front Benchers said that any Prime Minister in my position would have done exactly the same thing. It was only a few months ago that they were actually attacking Kate Bingham, saying she was a crony when she helped to set up the vaccine taskforce that delivered millions of vaccines for the people of this country and is helping us to get out of the pandemic.
“This is a Government who are getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities. We are rolling out many more nurses, with 10,000 more nurses in the NHS now than there were this time last year, and 8,771 more police officers on our streets now than they were when I was elected, with tougher sentences for serious sexual and violent criminals, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposed. And, by the way, I forgot to mention it but last night our friends in the European Union voted to approve our Brexit deal, which he opposed. That enables us not just to take back control of our borders, but to deliver free—[Interruption.] It does, which he fervently opposed, enabling us, among other things, to deal with such threats as the European super league. It enables us to deliver freeports in places like Teesside. Above all, taking back control of our country has allowed us to deliver the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, as he well knows, which would not have been possible if we had stayed in the European Medicines Agency, which he voted for.
“Week after week, the people of this country can see the difference between a Labour party that twists and turns with the wind and thinks of nothing except playing political games, whereas this party gets on with delivering on the people’s priorities, and I hope the people will vote Conservative on 6 May.
The Speaker: ”Order. Let us see if we can calm it down a little.”
Analysis - Who ‘won’ this week’s PMQs?
There’s no clear way of deciding who ‘wins’ a PMQs, and it’s up for debate whether they have much impact at all outside of Westminster.
If winning means getting your opponent to admit to a mistake, exposing a failing or tying them up in rhetorical knots, then Starmer probably came closest to a win yesterday, with the PM visibly flustered and reverting back to pre-prepared soundbites under sustained pressure.
But arguably, the main impact that can come from PMQs is a good clip on the 6’o’clock news, or on social media, which can be understood clearly in itself when separated from the wider context of the debate.
Whether Starmer was able to do this yesterday is unclear. Within the context of the full conversation, and knowing the details of the flat refurbishment scandal, the PM’s answers were not particularly convincing, and his unwillingness to answer the question exactly as it was asked gave the distinct impression he had something to hide.
But it feels unlikely that this full impression could be contained within any 30-second clip. Starmer’s questions built up but did not have a finishing flourish, and the PM’s rancorous rant may just be too good to ignore for news producers looking for the most interesting snippet.
The other potential way to use PMQs as an opposition leader is to lay a trap, and prompt the PM into incriminating himself, with the pay-off delayed until further down the line.
By this measure, Starmer likely did much better yesterday. His first question, touching briefly on the PM’s alleged “let the bodies pile high” comments, forced the PM into an outright denial, despite several sources maintaining that he did say it.
If, as might be the case judging by Starmer’s comments about returning to the issue at a later date, Labour are fairly confident that the PM did in fact say it, and it can be proved, then Johnson will be in a very difficult position which could - should, at least - prompt him to resign.
However, something in Johnson’s willingness to categorically deny the claim suggests that he may have some confidence that either he didn’t make the incendiary remark, or that nobody will ever be able to prove he did.