Like it or loathe it, Prime Minister’s Questions is about as close to ‘entertainment’ as you’re likely to get in British politics. Every Wednesday at noon, broadcast live to sitting rooms across the nation, Westminster’s MPs line the green benches of the House of Commons as the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition lock horns across the despatch box. It is, of course, supposed to allow politicians to hold our nation’s leader to account, but you’d often be hard-pressed to distinguish the chamber from a primary school playground at breaktime.
It’s an arena where political posturing carries more weight than the strength of your argument, where shouts, jeers and insults are hurled back and forth across the room more frequently than facts… above all, though, it is an arena where a politician like Boris Johnson truly thrives.
Equipped with a chorus of all-singing, all-dancing sycophants (or should I say his front- and backbenchers) and soundtracked by perfectly-timed cries of “hear hear”, Boris channels his inner thespian week on week, giving both the opposition and the public the ol’ Razzle Dazzle and using spectacle to mask his own incompetence. After all, in the wise words of Billy Flynn, “how can they hear the truth above the roar?”
As the coronavirus began to sweep the nation in March, however, Parliament joined the long list of theatres that were forced to close their doors. Upon reopening a month later, the packed audience had been replaced with a handful of socially-distanced spectators, the theatrical bells and whistles with a single, unforgiving spotlight shining directly on Johnson. Alone on the stage, Boris now had nowhere to hide: as all eyes fell on him, there would be no escaping the importance of cold, hard facts. The virus had stripped him of his usual aids to performance, leaving any slip-up, oversight or blunder there for all to see.
Enter Keir Starmer.
Anyone who buys into the common perception of lawyers as boring would naturally expect PMQs to be the former DPP’s Achilles’ heel. But now the atmosphere in the chamber is more reminiscent of a courtroom than a cabaret, it seems it is finally time for a Labour leader to shine. Last Wednesday, he went straight for the government’s weak spot, pressing Johnson on the rising virus death toll in Britain’s care homes. Calm, collected, and armed with a fact or figure to back up every point, it was clear that he’d done his homework.
Quoting directly from the government’s own advice, he questioned why it was that they believed infection and spread in care homes to be “very unlikely” until as late as March 12th. A second sucker-punch soon followed as he read aloud the words of a cardiologist, who saw the government policy of discharging untested care patients from hospitals as responsible for seeding COVID-19 in such vulnerable communities.
Glancing nervously behind him with his cronies nowhere to be seen, Boris looked more like a guilty witness floundering under cross-examination than a premier defending his own policies.
“It isn’t true,” he blustered, piecing together a response with more ums and erms than even the most hungover Oxford student could manage in a tutorial. Less than an hour later Johnson would receive a letter from Starmer with clear evidence to the contrary, showing him to be a Prime Minister with no handle on his own government’s policy. Whilst a lack of preparation may have made for an uncomfortable hour or so during his days at Balliol, it is now costing thousands of lives.
Then came the final blow: a print-out of a PowerPoint slide. Starmer struggled to contain a laugh as he showed the chamber the international comparisons used by the government for the first 49 daily briefings, the very comparisons conveniently dismissed as “unhelpful” the moment Britain’s death toll became the highest in Europe. “I’m baffled”, he exclaimed. Not baffled by his own lack of knowledge on the matter, oh no, rather by the vague effusions and empty rhetoric offered by Johnson in his response.
Half an hour of interrogation later and it seemed that one of Westminster’s most seasoned performers had been well and truly upstaged. It’s no wonder there are calls from within his party to get the Commons back to normality: it’s the only way to stop PMQs becoming a weekly source of embarrassment and a thorn in the government’s side.
Whether Keir will perform quite so admirably when the theatrics return remains to be seen, but I, for one, will have the popcorn at the ready this Wednesday lunchtime. Who knew there was so much entertainment to be had watching the government being properly held to account?