Who won this week’s PMQs? We’ve scored Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer as they discuss Downing St parties

Kate Plummer
Wednesday 12 January 2022 13:41
Politics

It was the edition of PMQs that everyone was waiting for.

After ITV News revealed that Boris Johnson’s private secretary Martin Reynolds sent an email to more than 100 employees inviting them to a drinks party in May 2020 at a time in which people could only meet one on one outside, speculation soon turned to Johnson himself and whether he attended the event.

Not a wine and cheese work meeting, not something the government could claim may not have happened, the leaked email provided clear substance to months of allegations that Downing Street hosted indisputable social gatherings during lockdown and the public were furious.

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So it was bound to dominate parliamentary proceedings today, as people waited to see what ladders Johnson would build to climb out of his hole. How did he get on?

Starmer: “Well there we have it, after months of deceit and deception the pathetic spectacle of a man who’s run out of road. His defence that he didn’t realise he was at a party is so ridiculous that it's actually offensive to the British public... Is he now going to do the decent thing and resign?

Starmer may have been prepared to question Johnson on whether he attended the party or not so when Johnson used his first statement in the House today to admit he attended, apologise, and claim he thought it was a work meeting, the leader of the opposition may have been thrown off course.

If he was blindsided, he certainly didn’t show it with this brutal rinsing.

Indeed, while the Labour party has been incredibly critical of Johnson and his premiership - particularly in the last few months as allegations upon allegations of parties have hit the press, Starmer and his team have stopped short of calling on the PM to resign but said that if he attended a party his position would then be untenable.

So when Johnson admitted he popped into his garden on 20th May, Starmer amped up his language and that’s significant.

Some have suggested he should have called on the PM to resign sooner, but the fact that he waited for evidence shows that calling on the leader to leave office is not a glib attack from an opposition party but something with real political weight.

Johnson: “I thought it was a work event.”

Oh dear.

When the government brushed off suggestions that another garden event was a party it was broadly ridiculed but in this instance, with a widely published email literally saying “it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks” it is clear that this defence takes the public for fools.

Downing Street is quite obviously one of the oldest working institutions in the land - we very much doubt it has the culture of a tech startup where employees sink beers and play ping pong while they brainstorm ideas.

Starmer: “That apology was pretty worthless.

And Starmer seemed to agree as he relayed stories MPs told in the House yesterday about sacrifices they and their constituents made in the pandemic while Johnson attended a drinks party. “Is the prime minister so contemptuous of the British public that he thinks he can just ride this out?” he asked.

Johnson: “I regret the way the event I have described was handled...he must wait for the inquiry which will report as soon as possible.”

Throughout PMQs, Johnson trotted out the same lines showing that whoever briefed him certainly left him with an earworm. He apologised, expressed regret, yet bizarrely said MPs and the public must wait for the results of the inquiry into Downing Street gatherings, which is being conducted by Sue Gray.

Given he admitted he attended the party, Gray’s job seems like a game of dot to dot but we will await her findings like the rest of the country.

Starmer: “Why does the prime minister still think that the rules don’t apply to him”

Starmer then reminded the PM that former health secretary Matt Hancock resigned for breaking social distancing rules, and his former spokesperson Allegra Stratton also resigned for her role in planning responses to press questions about alleged parties, putting further pressure on him to do the same.

And after he said the public saw him as “lying through his teeth”, he was rattled and questioned how Starmer “conducts himself in this place”. Those in glass houses...

Starmer: “The party’s over prime minister. The only question is will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, will he do the decent thing and resign?

Starmer couldn’t resist this good line as he accused Johnson of breaking the ministerial code and questioned whether the public or his own party will oust him, or whether he will resign.

Johnson: “He’s paid to try and remove me from office.”

Johnson’s response was frankly ridiculous. Given he may cause the Tories to be the opposition party soon, perhaps he will learn what Starmer is actually paid to do.

Starmer: “Her father died just days before the drinks trolley was being wheeled through Downing Street”

Starmer finished his questions by telling a moving story about a constituent whose father sadly died. He asked Johnson if he understand why the wrongdoing makes him “feel sick”.

Johnson apologised once again before giving himself a quick ill-judged pat on the back about the vaccine rollout.

Verdict

The tone of this edition of PMQs was remarkably different. A usually easily provoked Johnson made no jokes or jibes back at Starmer and instead - head down - repeated the same mumbled apologies like a schoolboy being reprimanded by a teacher.

How embarrassing that the main plot of Johnson’s government is about parties hosted by people too tight to provide refreshments? How deeply unserious that taxpayer money, media attention, and MPs concern is being channelled into finding out if the leaders of our country had a few nibbles and a chat while people were locked in their homes.

Johnson has disgraced himself and his party so much that Starmer could have bleated random noises or even vomited in the chamber and he would have still come off better in this exchange.

We would give scores on this session of PMQs but safe to say it would be a bit redundant as it would be a whitewash for Starmer who really didn’t have to do much at all, just watch Johnson squirm and dig himself further into a hole.

Here’s what some other people made of it:

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