Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer have been missing each other.

With busy respective schedules, including party conferences and trips abroad, the two just haven’t been able to get it together to do PMQs and, indeed, the last time they faced each other was 9 September when parliament returned from its summer recess.

Today the two party leaders were reunited, and had a spirited and (largely) respectful debate about what can be done to tackle extremism online and offline, in the wake of the tragic killing of Conservative MP Sir David Amess.

And with the awful news setting a more sombre tone in the chamber than a usually rowdy occasion, how did they get on?

“I did start in a collegiate spirit, and I will continue in a collegiate spirit,” - Starmer, 9/10

Throughout the conversation, Starmer seemed keen to emphasise that he wanted to collaborate with the government, not oppose them, to ensure the Online Harms Bill - which sets out to tackle extremist content online - is strengthened.

He explained ways in which he thought it did not go far enough, and praised ways in which he thought it worked.

It was refreshing to see this atmosphere, though the word “collegiate” did start to lose all meaning, such was its overuse.

“We are willing to look at everything to strengthen the legislation” - Johnson, 9/10

It is not often we see Johnson capitulating to opposition demands and, for someone who appears to thrive by creating political division, it was again refreshing to see Punch and Judy retired for something far more united.

“That was one of the most important things this government passed, and that party opposed!” - Johnson, 0/10

However, it appeared that Johnson tired quickly of the “collegiate spirit” of the house and - looking flustered - got his trusty finger jabbing finger out again to slam Starmer for opposing parts of government legislation. Not the best look.

“After the week we’ve just had I really don’t want to descend to that kind of knock about” - Starmer, 9/10

And so, a composed Starmer quickly reset the tone and put Johnson in his place.

“In which case it would be a fine thing if the opposition would withdraw their opposition to our measures” - Johnson, 3/10

Johnson said he was in favour of the - you guessed it - “collegiate spirit” but then pushed it once again and criticised Starmer for opposing measures to stop the early release of some prisoners.

Whether Johnson also realised how ridiculous asking the opposition to withdraw opposition sounded, we don’t know - but he needs to remember his is part of a two party chamber not a coalition, and if he likes coalitions so much, perhaps he should have wished to remain in Europe? They have a lot there...

Anyway.

“We need to clean up the cesspit once and for all” - Starmer, 9/10

Starmer criticised “unaccountable social media companies” for their role in failing to control harm online and said the government and opposition need to work together to hold them to account.

Verdict

Watching this week’s PMQs was far more like peeking behind the scenes of an internal government meeting than the usual pantomime showboatery that we are used to.

The house was quiet and listened respectfully to each politician, discussed shortcomings and strengths of legislation and committed to changes - though there were times in which Johnson seemed out of his comfort zone with this approach and sought to slam Starmer for not supporting the government enough,

Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see a policy set out, scrutinised and resolutions for changes made and it provided a useful template for a compassionate mature politics that could, with political willing, be the legacy of this week’s tragic events.

It could, however, be a one week symbolic event, and we fear proceedings will regress to the norm next time.

Aside from that, it was interesting that Starmer dedicated the entirety of his questioning about extremism, given other issues on the political agenda - rising cases of Covid and allegations that Johnson broke his own rules over Christmas, for instance.

Regardless, in honour of the collegiate spirit the pair set out, it is a draw. More of this, please.

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