With the previous week’s ‘virtual Prime Minister’s Questions’ having proved a relative success, it returned for another edition. The same themes as last week repeated, albeit with different particulars under discussion. Also repeated, perhaps more surprisingly, was the appearance of Dominic Raab, standing in for Boris Johnson at the despatch box for the second time.
Raab’s continued role might appear odd. Johnson is the Prime Minister and has been back at work since Monday. After weeks of absence, today’s session would have been a good chance to reassure the country that its leader was well and truly back at the helm. He could have defended his record in the Commons rather than just giving a speech to the camera while some journalists watched passively from a distance. However, the luck of the day had a different outcome in mind. Boris Johnson’s child was born, and so he was indisposed.
Which left Raab facing Starmer again. Starmer began well, challenging Raab to explain why the government was so insistent on claiming that it had responded well, considering the aggregate death toll in this country was over 27,000. A government scientist had said before the lockdown that keeping the death toll below 20,000 would be considered a good outcome considering the circumstances. His remarks on the positive rhetoric of the government seeming out of place did ring true, in the light of Johnson’s ebullient speech on Monday morning. However, he faltered on the issue of care worker deaths, appearing uncharacteristically wrong-footed by the fact that Raab had answered his question in his opening statement. PPE proved his strong-point, however. Bringing to the table a survey of doctors from the Royal College of Physicians saying that 1 in 4 could not access the protective equipment they needed to manage patients of Covid-19, as well as an accompanying quote from the college’s president to the effect that supply of PPE had worsened in the previous 3 weeks, it was arguably his best moment of the day.
Against that particular charge, Raab seemed unprepared, blustering that the UK was now the buyer of choice internationally, and that there was a worldwide shortage of PPE. On testing, Starmer honed in on the problem of supply dismissing on the evidence of the booking websites’ problems the government’s claim that the issue they faced was demand.
Raab was not without his moments. He held the line that the government was following the scientific advice, and was supporting the NHS to the maximum possible extent. In particular, he managed a good line in response to Starmer’s critique of the government’s refusal to publish their exit strategy. Raab recommended that his opponent display the same rigour in dealing with the evidence as he did when he was a Director of Public Prosecutions. But his responses seemed formulaic, and even at points lacked enthusiasm. A soundbite that the Conservatives were ‘the party of the NHS‘ was reeled off with the energy of one going through the motions. You could lose track of the number of times he uttered the words ‘right decisions at the right times‘, or declared that the situation was ‘unprecedented‘ and that the government was ‘following the science‘.
There were a few other stand out moments. Garden centres and plant nurseries seemed to be on the minds of several MPs, probably responding to pressure from constituents. Zarah Sultana asked the government to refuse to bail out companies headquartered in tax havens and bar them from using the money to practice stock buy-backs or make dividend payments. This was dismissed as partisanship. However, one of Raab’s own party, Robert Courts, added his own critique of banks’ behaviour to that of his Tory backbench colleague Peter Bone’s from last week, which seems to suggest that there is a current of opinion among Conservatives that the financial sector needs to get into line. This is a rarity in the traditionally pro-business Conservative party, but what will come of it remains to be seen.
Geraint Davies asked Raab to clarify why Britain hadn’t joined the EU PPE procurement scheme, which Raab said was due to a miscommunication. This is, on the face of it, minor. However, the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary, Simon McDonald had previously said to the foreign affairs committee that it was a political decision taken by ministers. Matt Hancock denied that this was true, and McDonald retracted his statement regarding the ventilator scheme in a subsequent letter. Asking Raab to commit one way or the other in parliament is not insignificant. If it turned out that it had been a political decision, then Raab would have lied to parliament. That would cause the end of his ministerial career, and in the past has been enough to bring down governments.