PMQs: Johnson flails wildly as outdated attacks fall flat

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

There was plenty for the Labour leader to focus on in Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon, the first session back after recess. Over the summer, the government performed numerous U-turns, from exam results to free school meals. The Labour leader didn’t manage to get through all the policy zigs and zags because, as he pointed out, Johnson’s administration has overseen “12 U-turns and rising”. Instead, Keir Starmer pressed the Prime Minister several times on the algorithm used to standardise exam grades, which resulted in nearly 40% of English students seeing their results marked down. “When did the Prime Minister know about the problems with the algorithm?” Starmer asked. No answer was given, but Johnson’s responses were still telling.

The PM lashed out at Starmer’s record on Brexit, accusing the Labour leader of U-turning on the issue: “This is a leader who backed remaining in the EU and is now totally silent on the issue.” He then switched to Starmer’s time under Jeremy Corbyn and tried to smear the new Labour leader for having “supported an IRA condoning politician”. Told to withdraw the comment by both Starmer and the Speaker, Johnson refused to do so. Highlighting his experience working on security in Northern Ireland as director of public prosecutions, Starmer told the Commons: “When the PM has worked with the security and intelligence forces prosecuting criminals and terrorists, he can lecture me.” The only real takeaway from the exchange was a lack of strategy from the PM.

It was a confused and messy back and forth for exactly this reason. But it was also exactly the PMQs that Starmer wanted. After what he called a “wasted summer”, he again emphasised the incompetence characteristic of this Tory government. Even Tory MPs can see it – the Labour leader quoted one who said: “The government says one thing on Monday, changes its mind on Tuesday, something different is presented on Wednesday.” In response, Johnson recycled his usual “Captain Hindsight” retort. The Labour leader quietly quipped: “The problem is he’s governing in hindsight – that’s why he’s making so many mistakes.”

The PM was clearly flustered by Starmer’s scrutiny over the numerous U-turns and completely unable to respond. He lurched towards the spectre of Brexit and Corbyn as a crutch, but in the context of the pandemic his attacks were outdated and fell flat. In contrast, the Labour leader clearly came well prepared with a litany of failures to pin on the government, in response to which Johnson could only flail about angrily. Returning after weeks away from the despatch box, it’s clear the Tory PM is only increasingly incapable of handling the persistent attacks on his remarkable lack of competence.

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