Prime Minister’s questions was a very different affair this week. Soberer than the usual raucous pantomime, proceedings were dominated entirely by the government response to coronavirus. The exchanges between Starmer and Raab at their first PMQ’s outings were icily courteous.
Nor was a distinctly calmer attitude the only new addition. Most MPs were not there in person, with many calling in by video link. Those who could safely attend the chamber were few and far between, with social distancing scattering them sparsely and widely across the chamber. Technical difficulties caused some light relief, with David Mundell told that ‘we’ve been unable to connect‘ by the Speaker. Equally unfortunate was Peter Bone, who was cut off part of the way through a critique of banks’ high overdraft rates and low-interest rates.
The protagonists were also new. First Secretary of State Dominic Raab, usually in charge of the Foreign Office, was standing in for the still-incapacitated Boris Johnson. For Keir Starmer, it was his first Prime Minister’s Questions as Leader of the Opposition, having won the Labour Leadership Election on a promise to unify the party and prepare it to win elections. This would be a key early test of his leadership.
Exchanges between those at the despatch box are usually the main event at Prime Minister’s Questions, and this time was no exception. The opening statement by Raab included an update on the condition of the PM and a tribute to the work of frontline healthcare workers. Starmer joined him in this tribute and offered his best wishes to the PM. Thereafter the pleasantries largely ended. Starmer’s first question concerned the government’s promise to deliver 100,000 tests by the end of April, as by Tuesday only a mere 18,000 had been carried out. Raab replied that they had actually increased the capacity to 40,000, which prompted Starmer to question why less than half of those were being used. Raab maintained that it was attainable and important to keep to targets. He deflected this into an attack on the Labour administration in Wales, who he said had abandoned their testing targets, and further claimed that the issue was demand. Starmer replied that demand was definitely there and that the accessibility of tests was a major concern.
Today marks @Keir_Starmer's first #PMQs since he became Leader of the Opposition.— UK House of Commons (@HouseofCommons) April 22, 2020
He used his six questions to ask First Secretary Dominic Raab on issues such as coronavirus testing for frontline workers, PPE and the number of care home workers who have died. pic.twitter.com/IO5fmpbbPH
Starmer claimed that the government’s plan on delivering PPE was not working. There was a big difference, he said between promises made by the government and what they had delivered, highlighting the fact that companies in the UK who had offered to supply the government were now exporting PPE to other countries. Raab’s response was to state that all countries were struggling, that the UK government had to make sure the equipment on offer was of the right standard and quality and referring by way of a defence to the successful provision of ventilators to the NHS.
Despite the substantial changes, there was plenty that was recognisable. MPs put forward questions on issues that concerned them and their constituents, mainly concerning the pandemic and associated issues. Opposition MPs raised what they saw as differences between what the government had claimed to have done or promised, and what had actually been done. These included the issue of PPE, the timing of the lockdown and issues around government support for the economy. Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP contingent at Westminster, asked if the government would support a Universal Basic Income, citing the purported endorsement of 100 MPs and 84% of the public. Raab declined to take up the proposal, on the grounds that it would not be sufficiently targeted. In response to questions about sectors or businesses for whom the financial support on offer was either insufficient or not available were asked, Raab committed to ensuring those who needed support could get it. A question on what was being done to support Councils was answered with a £1.6 billion fund for the purpose. There were also the usual softballs from Conservative MPs. These questions included how much money was being spent on the NHS, how much PPE had been delivered, and to affirm the government support and appreciation for the armed forces as they aided the coronavirus response. Raab was also asked about financial support available for zoos.
Overall, Starmer struck a courteous tone, acknowledging the obstacles and circumstances that the government faced. However, his questions were incisive and forensic. Raab stuck to the line that the government had ‘followed the science’, making ‘the right decisions at the right times‘, and undertaking a huge mobilisation to respond to an unprecedented challenge. He was well-armed with quick statistics. But his defence often sounded hollow against the force of the evidence that Starmer laid out, and he appeared somewhat outclassed at points. It was not the most exciting Prime Minister’s question’s by any stretch of the imagination, but a good showing for Starmer and a much-needed display of accountability.