<p>Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer battled it out</p>

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer battled it out

Reuters TV

I wonder what it’s like to do Prime Minister’s Questions? I wonder how Boris Johnson feels on a Tuesday night, before he goes to bed?

Does he get the equivalent of the Sunday scaries, knowing the day that faces him on the other side of his sleep? Is Wednesday his treat day, in which he has an especially nice lunch to bring a degree of solace to the time of the week he is lambasted by opposition MPs?

These are the thoughts that plague me. These are the answers I must seek. But anyway, PMQs was on today, and if there was any day for Johnson to feel nervous, it would have been today – the first PMQs after Matt Hancock resigned, due to that footage and compromising photos, taken with aide Gina Coladangelo, which took place despite social distancing measures that should have rendered it impossible.

This week, Starmer predictably battered Johnson over his handling of the incident, leaving the Prime Minister fumbling and mumbling. Let’s replay it:

“It wasn’t as fast as the vaccine rollout!”- Johnson, 0/10

After Starmer asked Johnson why he didn’t fire Hancock on Friday, when the story broke, Johnson said he acted with speed and, with the grace of someone trying to drag a suitcase up a block of stairs, tried to segue into a discussion vaccine rollout, his favourite get out of jail card. Johnson may as well say: “This may be bad and I am not going to address it, but here is something completely different that is good!” in response to Starmer’s questions. It was distracting the first time he did it, but by the umpteenth? Dull.

“What a ridiculous answer”- Starmer, 9/10

Talking to Johnson must be incredibly frustrating, given his consistent refusal to answer questions. There wasn’t much Starmer could say in response to Johnson’s blathering, so this pretty much covered it.

“He fires and rehires”- Johnson, 3/10

And despite the severity of the matter in hand, Johnson continued to lower the tone of the debate into the gutter to create Punch and Judy politics at its worst. Panicking, he reached into his arsenal and threw out a stale bullet from May. What are we on about? Johnson alluded to an old story in which Starmer faced criticism for removing his deputy, Angela Rayner, from her post of party chair and campaign coordinator following the Labour Party’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election.

Following the backlash at the time, Rayner was promoted to the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was given the newly created post as shadow secretary for the future of work, but safe to say, it wasn’t Starmer’s finest PR moment.

As we say, though, that was in May and incomparable to the Prime Minister failing to respond to a Health Secretary breaking his own rules and it was clear Johnson was clutching at straws. Rayner, sat next to Starmer, responded to Johnson by throwing him a cheery wave.

“In a minute he will be telling us he scored the winner last night!” - Starmer, 8/10

In one sentence, Starmer endeared himself to the whole nation in three ways. He told a joke that landed, he showed his personality, and he managed to shoehorn the football into a political conversation. What prowess.

“It was blindingly obvious that there was a conflict of interest here.” - Starmer, 7/10

Not content to just let the house bask in the incompetence of Johnson for not firing Starmer earlier, Starmer moved on to the second reason why the Hancock scandal was so serious – that he hired someone with taxpayers’ money who he had a close personal relationship with. The two had been friends since university and it remains unclear if their romantic relationship began before or after she was appointed to the department, or if this was ever declared as a conflict of interest. While cronyism may be a less amusing point of attack, it was an important point to raise.

“Millions of people made huge and very difficult sacrifices to follow the rules that his Health Secretary made” - Starmer, 10/10

And then he pulled out his trump card, the third reason why the Hancock scandal was abhorrent. If that wasn’t enough to illustrate the severity of the case, he then told a heartbreaking story about Ollie Bibby, a man with leukemia who died, unable to see his family, due to the rules in place at the time. He died one day before the photo of Hancock and his aide was taken.

“I can hardly think that’s appropriate...the Westminster bubble in answer to that question?... Withdraw that when he gets up. It’s the wrong response to Ollie’s case.” - Starmer, 10/10

The mood in the house had completely changed after this heartbreaking story. Johnson stammered but then responded by claiming Starmer was talking about an issue in the “Westminster bubble” and that people were more interested in the vaccine rollout. It was thoroughly distasteful.

“It’s one rule for them and one rule for everybody else.”- Starmer, 8/10

Starmer then expertedly listed times in which Johnson has supported colleagues who have broken rules, like Dominic Cummings (for the Barnard Castle trip, obviously) and Priti Patel (who was found to have broken the Ministerial Code last year). The evidence spoke for itself and enabled Starmer to create a narrative of a PM failing to take tough decisions for the country.

He also captured the national mood by co-opting a sentiment that has been expressed by many in the country about this Conservative government.

Johnson continued to plead that replacing Hancock with Sajid Javid on Saturday was fast, and tried to talk about the vaccine rollout again. Shambolic.

The verdict

Johnson came to PMQs with only one line of defence prepared – that Hancock left the day after the story of his affair broke and that that was pretty “quick”. Starmer was having none of it, and eviscerated him for not acting sooner, while laying out all the inconsistencies and backtracking in Johnson’s approach.

More than that, like the most experienced DJ, Starmer had control of the whole mood of the house. He had it in a noisy buzz of laughter in response to the sordidness of Hancock’s affair then sharply changed its tone by telling Bibby’s story.

As usual, Johnson talked in catch phrases. He was a children’s stuffed toy. Press its stomach, and a catch phrase comes out. “Dither!” “Vaccines!” “We got on!”. He was – we’re not afraid to say – useless.

For us, it was one of the best performances from Starmer, and one of the worst from Johnson. It’s a win for the leader of the opposition, then.

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