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It was just four seconds, but it felt like an age. That was the heavily pregnant pause, the strange silence amid the bearpit hubbub, that marked Boris Johnson’s delayed response to a direct hit from Keir Starmer in PMQs.
The Labour leader had picked up on widespread disruption being caused in schools and workplaces by the soaring numbers of people forced to isolate because of Covid’s Delta variant. Businesses were losing staff, holidays were being put at risk, parents and kids were missing school sports days, and some were even denied the chance to watch England in the pub, Starmer said.
Instead of a careful, controlled unlocking of restrictions, didn’t the PM’s ‘big bang’ approach mean “we are heading for a summer of chaos and confusion?” Then came that pause. Johnson was still seated, reading his notes, and apparently unaware of Speaker Hoyles’ call to answer the question. “....er, no, Mr Speaker…” he finally blurted out.
PMQs is a chance for an Opposition leader to vent real-time frustrations on behalf of the public, simultaneously making a PM squirm while trying to act as a voice of the voters. And Starmer had been wise to use the weekly exchange to highlight the real concerns many are now feeling as they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS app, even if they are double jabbed.
With Tory newspapers as well as Tory MPs expressing fury at the four-week delay in changes to isolation policy until August 16, this was undoubtedly ripe territory. Starmer knew the real reason for the delay was a sensible fear that ditching isolation now could lead to even higher cases (possibly 25% higher, the Guardian has been told), but he exploited the issue for all it was worth.
Without crediting Dominic Cummings (not least as he’s irretrievably tarnished in the eyes of many of the public), Starmer picked up on the former No.10 adviser’s withering description of Johnson as a wonky supermarket trolley that crashes around uncontrollably. “He is doing what he always does, crashing over to the other side of the aisle,” he said.
It’s unclear if Cummings wants to assert his copyright, but The Trolley is a good attack line on the PM as it focuses not on his ability to mislead or his lack of moral fibre (which the public appear to have spotted and dismissed) but on his competence and that of his government. A fair chunk of floating voters don’t mind a quasi-comedian in charge, they do dislike chaos that affects them directly.
It was Cummings who revealed recently that the PM had told him: “The chaos means everyone will look to me as the man in charge.” The difficulty is that while you can get away with editing the Spectator in such a fashion, it’s hard to run the country on similar lines.
That Johnson replied to Starmer with a tired set of greatest hits (European Medicines Agency, vaccines-vaccines-vaccines) underscored the complacency that some of his own MPs have been worried about since his failure to sack Matt Hancock. And the string of similar non-sequitur answers to the Liaison Committee later may have confirmed that impression.
Asked if he had sacked Hancock, he replied that his Vote Leave bus’s £350m-a-week NHS claim was an underestimate and not worthy of all the ‘hoo-ha’. Asked about today’s confirmed cut in the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, he said jobs were better than welfare. Asked what he meant at the G7 by ‘building back better in a more feminine way’, he talked about the number of women diplomats.
This wasn’t a supermarket trolley with a mind of its own, it was a dodgem car veering forwards, backwards, sideways, moving in any direction other than one that answered a question. The problem may come when the public sees itself in the passenger seat. One man’s cheerful funfair ride is another’s painful whiplash, a condition felt not immediately but sometime afterwards.
Normally, the PM can get away with his chaos theory of leadership because he does it with a smile. The risk comes when, as with his replies to Tory equalities committee chair Caroline Nokes, he does it with a smirk that borders on a snarl. Claiming she “would find fault with almost anything that we did Caroline, with the greatest of respect”, he then added she should “send me a postcard” to suggest a better way to explain his own surreal phrase about building back in a feminine way.
On everything from his lack of a plan for climate change to the absence of a 10-year funding plan for schools, Johnson either changed the subject or promised action would come some day soon. The pauses in policy don’t feel pregnant so much as prevaricating.
As the committee was wrapping up, the PM suggested the public just weren’t that interested anyway right now. “I’m sure our viewers may be switching over to the football,” he joked. He was probably correct about the England football team’s rival appeal compared to the dull business of government. But one suspects the long pause can’t last beyond this summer.