By Lacey Waters, Associate
Today’s PMQs was Boris Johnson’s first since the country’s virtual lockdown, the last (potentially) before Parliament rises early for Easter recess, and Jeremy Corbyn’s final outing as Leader of the Opposition.
Usually, the green benches are packed to the rafters with many MPs who were not lucky enough to get a seat rammed at the end of the House vying to get at least one eye on the action. But, for the last few weeks this has not been the case. The benches have been as empty as you would expect them to be for a dull, niche adjournment debate. Just a handful of MPs on both sides, all sitting two feet apart – or (supposedly) two swords lengths if you happen to be one of the few allowed to stand at the despatch box.
We’ve also come a long way from the Bercow regime, where PMQs ran on and on with no indication of how long they would take. I exaggerate slightly, but roughly 650 people in one room shouting at each other does get a bit much after 30 minutes. Sir Lindsay Hoyle generally runs a tight ship, but due to the ‘exceptional circumstances’, today’s session was a double whammy with Jeremy Corbyn grilling the Prime Minister over 12 questions instead of six.
Perhaps surprisingly, the situation was a more placid affair than usual. Whether this is down to there being fewer attendees, or to Members realising that more eyes were scrutinising their behaviour than ever, I will leave to you to decide.
It was Corbyn’s last outing as Opposition Leader, and the Prime Minister paid tribute, saying that although they do not agree on many things, neither his sincerity nor his desire to make society a better place for all were in doubt. In response, Corbyn said he was making it sound “like an obituary”, and that the PM can rest assured he would still be around making his voice heard.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it often seemed difficult for Johnson to provide simple answers to simple questions. Yes, I know we are in unprecedented times, but even before this, it was much the same. Saying increased testing for NHS staff and social carers will happen “as soon as possible” does little to help. Repeating the mantra of staying at home or that “we are putting our arms around every worker in the country” does little to alleviate the concerns of those who are abiding by the advice and not being paid as a result, or who are having to go to work to avoid not being paid whilst also risking their health and that of others.
One particularly harsh criticism came from Corbyn who declared it as “odd” a double session would need to take place when the Prime Minister could simply volunteer to make a statement on the situation in Parliament rather partake in daily press conferences. Which, I guess, would be fine, except – how many people do you actually know who watch Parliamentary proceedings, either live or as broadcast? I mean normal everyday people, not weirdos like us who either enjoy it or are paid to watch. My guess is it’s probably very few.
Press conferences work. 27.1 million people watched the official statement on Monday evening. Compare that to the 293,000 people watching BBC Parliament each day during one particularly busy Brexit week last year. Those figures alone should show why Johnson did not instead decide to make daily statements to Parliament. Although, unfortunately for Corbyn, press conferences mean he doesn’t get to respond, at least not live and in person.
One positive aspect of this situation, however, is that crime is down. In a question from the backbenches, it was asked what Government would do should this change. Johnson responded by saying Government “would come down on them like a tonne of bricks.” During which, the camera briefly switched to Home Secretary Priti Patel who had the smirk of someone who would absolutely love to throw a brick or two at someone should they do this. (Perhaps I should take this opportunity to reinforce that all views expressed are mine alone and not that of my employer, which is why my name is at the top…)
Should Parliament rise early this evening as is expected, that will be our last PMQs for at least four weeks. Unless, as Corbyn requested, the Prime Minister still makes himself and his Government available for scrutiny, perhaps electronically. A mass video chat of all MPs is certainly something I would pay to see. As many across the country are now spending their days on camera worrying if their mic is still muted, or if their face really looks that weird in real life, should our elected representatives not get to experience all this too? Place your bets now on which one will spend the whole time with the camera facing the wrong way or, worse, who will be the first to accidentally present their ‘definitely not work appropriate’ browsing tabs…
Photo credit: Parliament UK