PMQs Verdict: Open Borders and Grenfell Inaction

This week’s PMQs verdict sees Starmer probe away at the government’s failure to act on Grenfell and to secure our borders.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on as he addressees the media at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic briefing in Downing Street, London, Britain February 3, 2021. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS
Prime Minister Boris Johnson looks on as he addressees the media at a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic briefing in Downing Street, London, Britain February 3, 2021. Stefan Rousseau/Pool via REUTERS
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LONDON (Labour Buzz) - We began the session in an unusual situation in which Johnson has some good news to fall back on. The pandemic has normally been a case of crisis after crisis. However, for the first time, he has something which has gone right in the form of the vaccination program. 

Starmer, meanwhile, has had a bit of a red-faced moment with the leaked details of the focus groups he had been seeking. So, for the first time in a long time, Boris Johnson went into PMQs with a genuine chance of a win. Could he pull it off? 

Round one 

Starmer decided to open up on border restrictions. He acknowledged the successful rollout of the vaccine but then turned to advise from SAGE which said to ‘get close’ to preventing new variants coming in he has to go with a pre-emptive closing of borders and mandatory quarantine of new arrivals. Why, Starmer asked, did he not follow the SAGE advice?

Johnson replied by claiming that SAGE had not made that as one of their recommendations. He pointed to new restrictions in which everyone from red list countries would have to quarantine. “We have some of the toughest restrictions in the world’, he said.

Score: A draw. This is down to interpretations of the rules. Starmer correctly points out that SAGE stated that mandatory quarantine would be necessary. Johnson finds security in the fact that it was not included as one of their main recommendations.   

Round two

Starmer kept pounding away on his new favourite topic: border control. He said he was ‘intrigued’ by the Prime Minister’s answer and that he didn’t seem to be disputing what SAGE had said. He asked the Prime Minister to publish the minutes of the meeting so we could all judge for ourselves. 

He nudged Johnson closer to an answer. “Is he saying quarantining all arrivals would make no difference to fighting new variants,” he asked, “or is he saying quarantining new arrivals at the border would make a difference, but it’s too difficult to do it?”

Johnson then came back saying it was not practical to close the border. Doing so, he said, would prevent the import of medicines and food into the country. This is of course not true and, as Starmer pointed out, misrepresents Labour’s position. Those countries which have implemented travel bans have also allowed food, medicines and other supplies into the country. To do anything else would be insane. 

Score: A point to Starmer. Johnson’s answer, as so often, relied on a lie about Labour’s position and a lie about reality. 

Round three 

Starmer followed up on the first two questions. He highlighted data which showed that more cases had come from France and Spain than had come from China. A ban was placed on the latter, but not the former. Why was it, he asked, that Johnson felt the virus would only take direct flights? 

Johnson did what he always does when presented with a question he can’t answer and went into waffle mode. He claimed Labour was trying to ‘have it both ways,’ by leaving the border open for freight and restricting the movement on individuals. He then went on the attack by claiming Starmer was on record urging the UK to join the European Medicines Agency. 

This, it seems, is something the Conservatives feel could be a silver bullet and it might be. Starmer described the claim as nonsense. “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a preprepared gag’. 

Johnson urged Starmer to check YouTube where clips are being circulated in which Starmer appears to be asking if it’s sensible for the UK to leave the European Medicines Agency. 

The devil is of course in the detail. Those clips come while Starmer was shadow Brexit Secretary and occurred before the pandemic began. He has never, as a leader, called for the UK to be part of the European Medicine Agency. 

Score: A point to Starmer. As a rule, any time one of the utter an outright lie, they should lose a point. However, this is likely to play well in the right-wing press who are unlikely to let the truth get in the way of a political point.  

Round four 

For his remaining questions, Keir Starmer turned to the Grenfell scandal. Three and a half years after Grenfell, he asked why are people being left in unsafe homes which they can’t sell and having to foot the bill for repairs that aren’t their fault? 

Johnson agreed that this was an important question and that work was underway in 95% of affected homes. 

Score: We’ll mark this down as a draw, mainly because Starmer was mainly setting up Johnson for tougher blows with the next two. 

Round five 

Whatever they are trying with Grenfell, Starmer said, wasn’t working. He raised the problem of a Doctor Will Martin whose flat has the cladding and spends his days on the front line fighting COVID. He was, Starmer said, wondering how he would pay the £52,000 bill he had to foot for repairs. He asked if he will have to pay for it? 

Johnson claimed he will not. “No leaseholder,” he said, “should have to pay unaffordable costs’, to repair problems for which they were not responsible. He pointed to forthcoming packages which he said he hoped would address Will Martin’s problems. 

Score: We’ll give Johnson the benefit of a draw here as he did come about as close as he ever has to answering a question. However, as the next question shows, his claim that leaseholders should have to pay for repairs is on very shaky ground.  

Round six

“There are thousands of people in the same position,” Starmer said turning the to case of a woman called Hayley who he said had gone bankrupt. He had spoken to leaseholders he said and put their demands through to Johnson. 

They had asked for upfront funding to avoid them falling into financial difficulty and deadline of next year for things to be made safe. Labour had tabled a vote for those things on Monday. Johnson had ordered his MPs to abstain. 

This was a real knockout blow. Johnson had claimed he was doing everything he could to help people but when given the chance to do something solid he declined. It’s one of those moments where BS hits reality. Every statement he made about doing everything they can and that nobody should suffer financially, are rendered empty when it comes to reality. 

Instead, he flailed away on a tangential rant until the speaker stepped in saying ‘answers have to be somewhere near the question.’ 

Score: Two points to Starmer. His question neatly exposed the hypocrisy of the government’s position. We’ll add a second point on the basis that any time the speaker steps in to drag you out of the ring it’s an instant penalty. 

PMQs Verdict: A hollow victory for Starmer

As a site which likes to go on the facts, it’s hard to score this as anything but a resounding 4-0 victory for Starmer. Given a slightly difficult territory, he still managed to skewer the Prime Minister on details and Johnson resorted to lies, misrepresentation and evasion. 

However, that may not be how it gets reported. Clips of Starmer urging the government to stay the European Medicines Agency are already circulating and the majority of the press will probably report it as a zinger for the Prime Minister. 

That this came before COVID 19 and that even if you are in the EU you can still opt out of the agency and pursue your own vaccine program, mean very little. Johnson will probably come away from this exchange feeling happier, safe in the knowledge that a tame media will do the spin for him. 

(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Klaudia Fior)

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