LONDON (Labour Buzz) - It was a rather stodgy PMQs with neither man managing to make any meaningful blows. We watched it so you didn’t have to. Here is what, for the want of a better word, we’ll call the highlights. 

Q1 Extend business rates 

Starmer came out of his corner like the most cautious of boxers probing away with a jab. His question was short and somewhat bland: could the Prime Minister confirm that the government would extend the business rate relief beyond March 31st. 

Johnson’s reply was equally short. He urged Starmer to wait until the budget in March. 

Round 2 furlough scheme

Starmer took the answer to mean he couldn’t say. The problem, he said, as the British Chamber of Commerce had said was that businesses need an answer now. So, he tried another question: could Johnson confirm that the furlough scheme would be extended?

Predictably, Johnson didn’t have an answer. Instead, he talked about unveiling a roadmap out of the crisis and assured Starmer he ‘won’t have to contain himself for long.’

Score: Point for Johnson. There wasn’t much of a point scored by either man. Starmer possibly shot himself in the foot by pressing Johnson on one of the few policies which have been successful. Johnson took the opportunity to talk about a route out of the crisis. Overall, this might have played out slightly better for Johnson than Starmer. 

Round 3 Ignoring business

Starmer now, at last, began to pivot towards a point. Johnson, he said, “can take decisions for himself,” he assured him. He listed the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the British Chamber of Commerce who all say they can’t wait. Why he asked, does the Prime Minister think he knows better than business?

Rather than answer the point Johnson dialled up the bluff a little more. Starmer, he said, had stood on a manifesto to destroy capitalism and to break up the pharmaceutical companies which had delivered the vaccine. He challenged Starmer to repudiate this policy. 

Score: A draw. Both men landed timid punches here, but they won’t have had much impact. Starmer nudged at an ongoing concern among advisers, Johnson’s inability to make decisions for himself. Business, he said, “does not work as slowly as the Prime Minister.” It is a reasonable charge to make. Throughout the crisis, Johnson has been slow to move and has taken decisions only at the last minute when he finally runs out of options. 

Johnson ducked the question but hit back with one about the pharmaceutical industry. 

Round 4: Eviction ban 

Starmer plugged away at the same theme as the past three questions: would he extend the eviction ban? 

Johnson had no answer but continued with his usual waffle that the Conservatives ‘were putting our arms around the country’. He demanded Starmer ‘get behind the government’.

Score: no points for either. We’ve heard all this before. 

Round five 

Finally, a bit of action as Starmer moved onto his recent favourite topic. Border control. He reminded us all of Johnson’s claim that Britain had one of the toughest sets of restrictions in the world. He highlighted a report from Oxford University which showed there are more than 30 ahead of us. Britain, it said, was not even in the top tier. 

Johnson’s answer was a scrambled mess. He claimed that some European countries didn’t even have a quarantine system in place at hotels. Excusing your performance by claiming others are even worse is not the best tactic at the best of times. However, it’s even worse when you consider the list of countries without a policy in place includes Britain. For reasons best known to itself, it will not have the policy in place until Monday.

Score: A point for Starmer. If you claim your system is world-beating and a report points out its rubbish, you really can’t complain about anything. 

Round 6 New ideas 

Starmer ended a dull exchange with a dull question. The truth is this: “He is failing to protect businesses and secure the border,” he said. “He often complains he doesn’t get constructive ideas from the opposition: here are two: support businesses and protect jobs now by extending the furlough, business rate relief and the cut in VAT for hospitality businesses. 

Second, secure borders with comprehensive border control with quarantines in hotels. 

Score: It was a weak end to a weak session for the leader of the opposition who seems to have lost his mojo in recent weeks. Johnson was able to flap it away by pointing out that one of those ideas was already coming in, albeit much delayed. 

PMQs verdict 

A bore draws in a weary exchange between the two. Covering the exchange for LBC James O Brien probably described it best. It was, he said, like watching the fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones. It was two posh boys fighting with neither likely to do anything violent enough to land a serious punch. He just wanted one to be knocked out and didn’t much care who it was. 

Such ambivalence from a keen Starmer supporter should have Labour’s leader worried. It should be a signal to Labour’s top team that they need to inject some meat into their opposition. If that’s what your supporters are saying, you won’t want to know what your opponents are thinking.  

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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