Following recent news on a Covid vaccine, you might have expected an easier Prime Minister’s Questions session for Boris Johnson this afternoon. But the vaccine featured sparingly as the Labour leader dragged the PM over the coals for rampant government splurging on PR and a reckless approach to handing out public money to private companies. Highlighting that only £6m has been awarded to veterans’ charities throughout the crisis, Keir Starmer told MPs that the Tories have spent £130m on PR companies this year alone. Johnson had no effective rebuttal. He referred only to reports over the weekend of the £670,000 spent on consultants by his vaccine task force tsar – never mind the other £129,330,000.
The PM wanted to make it a straight public versus private debate this afternoon: “No matter how much the party opposite may hate them, it’s the private sector that provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthrough.” But the problem for Johnson is that, in classic Starmer style, the Labour leader was not attacking private companies but again making an argument around competence and responsibility. “This is not the Prime Minister’s money, it’s taxpayers’ money,” Starmer told the Commons. “The Prime Minister may not know the value of the pound in his pocket but the people who send us here do and they expect us to spend it wisely.” (Hat tip to Harold Wilson). Highlighting £150m handed to Ayanda Capital for 50 million unusable face masks, the awarding of £347m contract to Randox – a company which had to recall 750,000 Covid tests earlier this year on safety grounds – and consultants being paid £700,000 a day to work on NHS test and trace, the Labour leader accused the government of a “lax attitude to taxpayers’ money”.
This is not just a problem for Johnson. “The British people are paying the price for the mistakes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.” Stressing the impact of the last minute furlough U-turn, with record levels of redundancies, 780,000 people off the payroll since March and unemployment rising fast, Starmer doled out blame equally: “If they’d handed contracts to companies that could deliver, public money would have been saved. If they’d extended furlough sooner, jobs would have been saved. If they’d brought in a circuit breaker, lives would have been saved.” The message from the Labour leader today? It is not just Johnson recklessly leading the British people from one disaster to the next, but Sunak as well. This is just as much the Chancellor’s mess.