Who won PMQs? Broken record Boris Johnson took on ‘invertebrate‘ Keir Starmer – here’s how they scored

A repetitive, dull and uninspired clash – let’s hope that’s not how we end up referring to tonight’s Euro 2020 semi-final.

It is, however, an accurate assessment of the latest round of Prime Minister’s Questions.

Boris Johnson kicked off Wednesday’s action well enough – with a good luck message to England’s footballers and a tribute to the victims of the 7/7 London bombings.

But no sooner was he faced by his opponent, Sir Keir Starmer, than things started to descend into lacklustre dribbles and frustrated hollers from the stands. (And again, no, we’re not talking about the footie.)

We’ve scored the leaders on their performance today and, though there were a number of penalties dished out, believe us, they had nothing on Italy vs Spain.

‘Sending condolences to the family and friends of Sislin Fay Allen’ - Johnson 10/10

The Prime Minister has a lot on his mind at the moment and could easily overlook events that are not Covid or football-related.

And yet, as well as marking the 16th anniversary of the London bombings, and offering light-hearted best wishes to Gareth Southgate’s squad, he also took a moment to pay homage to the UK’s first Black female police officer, who died earlier this week at the age of 83.

His words set a calm and conciliatory tone in the Commons. It’s just a shame that didn’t last long…

‘I’m sure the whole country, with the possible exception of the Conservative MP for Ashfield, will be watching this evening and cheering England on’ - Starmer 10/10

It was a cheeky quip by the Labour leader, but it raised more than a few laughs.

Starmer couldn’t help but take a dig at Nottinghamshire MP Lee Anderson, who announced last month that he will “not be watching my beloved England team” while they continue to take the knee before matches.

It lightened the mood a bit before Starmer turned his attention to Batley and Spen’s new MP, Kim Leadbeater, who takes up the seat once held by her beloved late sister.

Turning to her as she sat beneath a plaque to Jo Cox, he recognised it as a “special and emotional moment for all of us on these benches”. And, indeed, it felt that way.

‘The question is whether we do it in a controlled way or a chaotic way’ - Starmer 8/10

Those moments of poignancy swiftly melted away, and it was time to start the main order of play.

Starmer began by addressing plans to lift lockdown restrictions in England on July 19, asking how many deaths, hospitalisations and cases of long Covid would emerge as a result.

Citing remarks made by Health Secretary Sajid Javid that infections could reach 100,000 a day, he asked: “If infections reach that level – 100,000 per day – what does the Prime Minister expect the number of hospitalisations, deaths and the number of people with long Covid will be in that eventuality?”

The Labour leader then stressed: “We all want our economy to open and to get back to normal. The question is whether we do it in a controlled way or a chaotic way.”

It was a hugely important point to raise, yet he didn’t suggest what a “controlled way” might look like, which fuelled the PM’s defence.

We have severed the link between infection and serious illness’ - Johnson 4/10

Yes, it’s true, hospitalisations and deaths aren’t as high now as they have been at equivalent points in previous coronavirus waves, but Johnson didn’t quite get his facts right here.

He stated categorically that “scientists are absolutely clear that we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death,” yet this isn’t quite the case.

As Sky’s Beth Rigby pointed out, Sir Patrick Vallance told Monday’s Downing Street press briefing that vaccination had “weakened” the link but not broken it entirely.

Misrepresenting what your advisers say isn’t going to do you any favours, Prime Minister.

We can call it the Johnson variant’ - Starmer 7/10

Irritated that Johnson had refused to answer his first question about the number of Covid casualties after July 19, Starmer blamed him outright for his handling of the pandemic.

“Let’s be clear why infection rates are so high – because the Prime Minister let the Delta, or we can call it the Johnson variant, into the country,” he told the Commons.

“Let’s be clear why the number of cases will surge so quickly – because he is taking all protections off in one go. That is reckless.”

Still, whilst the “Johnson variant” does have a catchy ring to it, pinning the entire crisis on one man may be a little excessive, even if he is the PM.

‘We need to hear what [Starmer] actually supports’ - Johnson 3/10

It didn’t take long for the Prime Minister to reach for his favourite comfort blanket: the success of the vaccination programme.

Quizzed on whether he was comfortable with a plan which means “100,000 people catching this virus every day”, Johnson insisted: “We will continue with a balanced and reasonable approach,” before launching into his jab spiel.

He fired out: “This country has rolled out the fastest vaccination programme anywhere in Europe, the vaccine provides more than 90 per cent protection against hospitalisation [...], by the 19th of July every adult will have been offered one vaccination (etc.).”

“That’s an extraordinary achievement, that’s allowing us to go ahead,” he stressed before turning the table on his rival.

The PM said that, earlier this week, Starmer seemed to support the Government’s aims to “open up”, get rid of social distancing rules and reopen nightclubs and other businesses.

“But if he doesn’t support it, perhaps he could clear it up now – is it reckless or not?”he asked.

We’re scoring Johnson a meagre 3/10 for this segment because not only did he sound like a broken record trying to use vaccine triumphs as a catch-all for everything else, but also he seemed to forget that this is Prime Minister’s Questions, not ‘Grill the Opposition’.

‘It won’t feel like Freedom Day to those who have to isolate’ - Starmer 9/10

Johnson refused to say how many people he expects to be self-isolating this summer, as he defended the move towards testing as “the prudent approach”.

After being pressed by Starmer, the Prime Minister told the Commons: “What we will be doing is moving away from self-isolation towards testing over the course of the next few weeks, and that is the prudent approach.”

“He can’t have it both ways. He says it’s reckless to open up and yet he attacks self-isolation which is one of the key protections that this country has,” he added.

But Starmer hit back by saying he wasn’t attacking self-isolation, merely pointing out that estimates for the number of people who will end up in quarantine this summer will be “massive” despite the Government’s testing plans.

He then accused the PM of, yet again, failing to answer his question and “ignoring the next big problem that’s heading down the track and going to affect millions of people who have to self-isolate.”

The Labour leader said: “It won’t feel like ‘freedom day’ to those who have to isolate, when they’re having to cancel their holidays, when they can’t go to the pub or even to their kid’s sports day. And it won’t feel like ‘Freedom Day’ to the businesses who are already warning of carnage because of the loss of staff and customers.”

Good point, well made.

‘On Monday he seemed to say he was in favour of opening up on July 19, now he’s saying it’s reckless – which is it?’ - Johnson 0/10; Hoyle 10/10

Oh goodness. Not again. The Prime Minister again demanded that Starmer yell from the rooftops: “I support/do not support the Stage 4 road map plans.”

But, this time, Sir Lindsay Hoyle was quick to step in: “Just a reminder that this is Prime Minister’s Questions. If we want Opposition questions we’ll need to change the standing order.”

‘We want to open up in a controlled way’ - Starmer 8/10

Amazingly, Starmer came back to the PM with a (relatively) clear answer.

He told the Commons: “We want to open in a controlled way, keeping baseline protections that can keep down infections, like mandatory face masks on public transport.

“Now we know that will protect people, reduce the spread of the virus and it won’t harm the economy – it’s common sense. Why can’t the Prime Minister see that?”

In other words, he actually offered suggestions on how to make the July 19 easing that little bit less “chaotic”, without damaging the economy.

The PM retorted that if the enforcing/removal of mandatory masks is the “only difference between us”, and if he supports “everything else”, then that is “good news”.

‘He’s doing what he always does - coming up with a plan that hasn’t been thought through’ - Starmer 5/10

The Labour leader branded the decision to make face masks compulsory “ridiculous” as he accused Johnson of “chasing headlines”.

“It’s clear what this is all about, he’s lost a health secretary, he’s lost a by-election, he’s getting flack from his own MPs, so he’s doing what he always does: crashing over to the other side of the aisle, chasing headlines and coming up with a plan that hasn’t been thought through,” Starmer lashed out.

“We all want restrictions lifted, we want our economy open and we want to get back to normal but we’ve been here too many times before. Isn’t it the case that once again instead of a careful, controlled approach, we’re heading for a summer of chaos and confusion?”

This cataclysmic assessment doesn’t quite seem fair to all the advisers and experts who have helped inform the July 19 decision. It’s important to challenge all decisions taken by the Government, but it’s a cheap card to simply accuse the PM of always opting for popularity over prudence.

‘We vaccinate, they vacillate. We inoculate, while they’re invertebrate’ - Johnson 2/10

It wouldn’t be PMQs without the Prime Minister blurting out a playground-style epithet, which he likes to pull out of the bag seemingly every week at the moment.

In fairness to Johnson, his initial point was an understandable one: that the Government has been forced to make incredibly tough calls over the past 16 months.

He told the Commons: “Of course these are difficult decisions they need to be taken in a balanced way and that’s what we’re doing. And throughout the pandemic to do all these things frankly takes a great deal of drive and it takes a great deal of leadership to get things done.”

But then he had to ruin it with this: “We vaccinate, they vacillate. We inoculate, while they’re invertebrate.”

Our verdict?

The Prime Minister lacked any real gumption today, his responses consisting almost entirely of praising vaccines and asking Starmer the same question over and over again.

The Labour leader, however, made some decent points and at least gave some idea of his party’s position on the July 19 relaxations.

All we can say is, we hope England’s footballers show more imagination tonight than its politicians do.

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