PMQs: “Half-arsed bluster” from Johnson no comfort to P&O staff, says Starmer

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson faced off at Prime Minister’s Questions today ahead of the Spring Statement. The Labour leader focused on the scandalous decision by ferry operator P&O Ferries last week to fire 800 of its staff via Zoom and replace them with agency staff reportedly paid less than the UK minimum wage. Starmer demanded: “If the Prime Minster can’t stop that, what’s the point of his government?” Johnson responded confidently, condemning the “callous behaviour” of P&O and outlining the action the government plans to take, including steps to protect mariners and ensure they are paid the minimum wage.

As in Angela Rayner’s PMQs session last week, Starmer linked a topical issue – the fallout from P&O’s decision – with Tory sleaze. He stressed that “when Owen Paterson was on the ropes, the Prime Minister was prepared to rip up the entire rulebook to save his jobs”. In contrast, Johnson “didn’t lift a finger” when P&O workers needed him to fight for them, despite the advanced warning he reportedly received. Starmer next attacked the government on contracts awarded to P&O and its parent company DP World: “Can the Prime Minister guarantee that these companies will not get a penny more of taxpayer money or a single tax break until they reinstate the workforce?”. Johnson came back swinging, accusing Starmer of asking the government to “actively pitchfork away investment”.

Johnson only become more confident as the session went on. Asked by the Labour leader whether his government would close the gap in legislation allowing companies to pay seafarers less than the minimum wage, Johnson scoffed and asked his opposite number to “listen to the answer I gave to the first question”. Starmer highlighted that the Prime Minister instructed Conservative MPs to abstain on a vote about banning fire and rehire on Monday, arguing that Johnson “doesn’t have the backbone” to ban the practice. Johnson retorted that the most notable practitioners of fire and rehire are Starmer’s own party – a reference to Labour’s pay negotiations with its own staff.

The Labour leader closed the session strongly, describing the government’s promise to help P&O workers find new jobs – rather than help them get reinstated – as “pathetic”. “They don’t want a Prime Minister hoisting the white flag. They want him to fight for their livelihoods,” Starmer argued. Workers throughout the industry are worried for their future, he explained, and will not take a “crumb of comfort” from the “half-arsed bluster and waffle” from Johnson. Despite this confident finish, however, the session felt like a win for Johnson. Newly invigorated as Tory sleaze and ‘partygate’ increasingly fade from the headlines under the cover of war in Ukraine, Johnson is back in his element – employing characteristic Johnsonian boosterism to shrug off scrutiny at a time when working people need serious help.

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