PMQs: Callous PM shrugs off Hancock affair as “Westminster bubble” story

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson kicked off by offering well-deserved congratulations to the England football team. But the Labour leader moved on quickly to ask the Prime Minister why he did not sack Matt Hancock immediately after footage emerged of the Health Secretary getting hot and heavy with his aide, with the public instead left waiting for Hancock to resign. Johnson protested, repeatedly, that there was a new Health Secretary in place “the following day”. No thanks to the PM, the Labour leader pointed out: “On Friday, the Prime Minister said the case was closed, then on Monday he tried to take the credit for the Health Secretary resigning – in a minute, he’ll be telling us he scored the winner last night.”

The exchange took a sober turn when the Labour leader raised the case of Ollie Bibby who died of leukaemia on May 5th, just one day before Hancock was filmed breaking his own rules. As Starmer told MPs, Bibby “begged to see his family” while in hospital but, complying with public health restrictions, only one family was allowed to be with him. After the video of the Health Secretary emerged, Bibby’s mum said: “I’m livid. We did everything we were told to do, and the man who made the rules didn’t.” Johnson responded with his typical lack of tact, accusing Labour of “focusing on stuff that’s going on in the Westminster bubble”. Starmer asked the PM to withdraw the comment. “The Westminster bubble, Mr Speaker, in answer to that question?” he asked. “It’s the wrong response to Ollie’s case.”

Johnson brushed aside the sacrifice of people following rules his government implemented only to see their architect break them. He also, while attempting to bat away criticism over his handling of the Hancock affair, joked that Starmer “fires and rehires”, referring to the recent Labour reshuffle. He got a laugh from Tory backbenchers, with no recognition paid to ‘fire and rehire’ being a brutal tactic that has seen many workers across the country face destitution. Last week, the PM dismissed serious questions over the appallingly low levels of rape and sexual violence as “jabber“. Time and again at Prime Minister’s Questions, where Johnson’s handlers cannot completely plan the exchange, he betrays his true feelings: callous indifference.

Doggedly sticking to the same line of questioning, Starmer went on to point out that the Hancock scandal forms part of a pattern. Just as with Dominic Cummings and his trip to Barnard Castle, Robert Jenrick and his corrupt dealings with a property developer, and Priti Patel bullying her staff, Johnson was willing to back his colleague above all else. An elite club closing ranks. “Every time it’s the same old story,” Starmer told MPs. “It’s one rule for them and another rule for everybody else.”

The powerful personal story and focus on a single issue made for a strong PMQs for the Labour leader today. Johnson had no response, offering no answers over the events that saw him back the disgraced Health Secretary only for Hancock to remove himself from office a day later. Instead, he repeatedly made reference to the vaccination programme – a tactic he now deploys, almost without fail, whenever criticised. The hope for Labour is that, at some point, the shine of the life-saving jab will wear off this government and people will take a long, hard look at the PM.

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