PMQs: When is a new hospital not a new hospital? When it’s promised by the PM

Elliot Chappell
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson met today after allegations emerged that Downing Street broke Covid rules by hosting a party in the run-up to Christmas last year. Did the festive bash take place? Johnson did not address the question directly, saying only that all guidelines were followed “completely”. He instead attempted to shift the conversation towards the rules now reintroduced on mask-wearing. But sticking with last year’s shenanigans, Starmer read out the rules that were in place – ‘you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party’ – and concluded: “He’s not denied it. He says no rules were broken. Both of those things can’t be true.”

The Labour leader next challenged the Prime Minister to publish a progress report on the project to build 40 new hospitals, to which he said the Treasury has given a “red flag” because it is “unachievable”. Johnson denied this, insisting that the government will make good on its promise. But Starmer came prepared with a frankly Orwellian document, called the “new hospital programme communications playbook”, designed to aid Tories on how they should discuss their manifesto promise. You might have thought that a pledge to build 40 new hospitals was straightforward enough. Starmer said: “This guide instructs everybody to describe refurbishments and alterations on existing hospitals as new hospitals. We can all agree that refurbishments are a very good thing, but they’re not new hospitals.”

These lines of attack served as a prelude to a wider critique on trust. Starmer went on to list Johnson’s litany of broken promises and exercises in undermining public trust: attempting to save Tory colleague Owen Paterson after he breached lobbying rules; U-turning on promises for a “rail revolution” in the North; breaking his promise that nobody will have to sell their home to pay for care with his “working-class dementia tax“; and pledging not to raise taxes before doing just that. We know that trust matters to people; the dip in support for the government and for Johnson after the Barnard Castle debacle showed that. Although the Tories have shown themselves able to weather attacks on their integrity time and again, key to Starmer’s pitch is that he is a trustworthy character – unlike the PM.

Johnson dismissed the criticism today as just more “frivolous questions”, saying the Starmer “drivels on irrelevantly about wallpaper and parties” while his government is getting on with the job. This has been his go-to deflection since he came to power, whether ‘the job’ is getting Brexit done, levelling up or tackling Covid. It seems to have worked so far – concerns over the Prime Minister’s political adviser breaking lockdown rules, the numerous allegations of public Covid contracts handed to mates and Johnson’s own dealings with Conservative donors did little to dent the Tory performance in the local elections this year. Starmer is hoping that as sleaze allegations and broken promises mount, those concerns will become impossible to brush aside – and increasingly people will find that the joke isn’t funny anymore.

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