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Artillery Row Sketch

Liar! Liar! House on fire?

Never mind whether PMQs matter – does Parliament currently matter?

After the remarkable candour of the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, that what the government is proposing “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”, Keir Starmer, former Director of Public Prosecutions, could be expected to pin down the prime minister on what precedent the government thought it was setting by breaking the law. Particularly so, since this was the day that the offending legislation, the Internal Market Bill, was introduced to parliament.

But why be predictable? Instead, the leader of the Opposition opted to ask all six of his allotted questions to the prime minister on the failings of the test and trace programme.

He did so because the press conference that Boris Johnson was to give later in the afternoon announcing the latest restrictions (making it illegal for more than six people to gathering socially) would lead evening news coverage. Human rights lawyer though he was, Sir Keir did not want to show his hand on whether it is right for the government to arbitrarily make it illegal for seven or more people to enjoy each others’ company. But by highlighting the poor experience that individuals have experienced in trying to access tests near their home, the evening news would be able to include footage of Starmer questioning the government’s ability to get on top of tracking the disease.

Thus it was that the Labour leader stepped-out of the Westminster bubble, where the Internal Market Bill and its implications in international law is the hot topic, and focussed instead on a Covid concern that more immediately affects the British public. Doing so also came with the additional benefit that it would mean Starmer did not talk about Brexit. Once bitten, twice shy on this subject, the Labour leader visibly hates it when Johnson goads him about his role in committing Labour at the last election to a second referendum.

For all this, Starmer had the chance to kick a prime minister where he is especially vulnerable. In declining the opportunity to do so, the pivot to Covid testing seemed like an opportunity lost. The failings of test and trace have been with us for months, and will be with us for months more, whilst the stramash created by the Internal Market Bill’s changes to the Withdrawal Act is the street brawl kicking off right now. In focussing on test and trace, Starmer appeared to be too strategic to scrap. The problem is that PMQs is for street fighters.

Human rights lawyer though he was, Sir Keir did not want to show his hand on whether it is right for the government to semi-arbitrarily make it illegal for seven or more people to enjoy each others’ company

Worse, Starmer did not really use his six questions to develop the argument, merely finding different ways and examples of repeating his basic point that some people have had unacceptable levels of difficulty in accessing Covid-19 tests. But (for once), the prime minister had the statistics to hand. When a country has scaled-up tests from 2,000 a day to 320,000 a day, having conducted 17.6 million tests – more than any other country in Europe – it is easy for a prime minister to swat aside a Labour leader who has described the system as “on the verge of collapse.”

The anti-climax on the frontbench concluded, this was a Commons spectacle where The Speaker was the star turn.

First it came when the SNP’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, insisted that the devolution in seventy areas of powers formerly held by Brussels to Holyrood was, thanks to the Internal Market Bill, a Westminster power grab. The combination of moral certainty with utter contempt for the prime minister that the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber brings to every PMQs is a wonder to behold. Today’s offering included the charge that “the prime minister and his friends, a parcel of rogues, are creating a rogue state. One where the rule of law does not apply. Why does the prime minister think that he and his friends are above the law?”

Johnson’s anodyne reply about how Scotland would benefit from the Internal Market Bill was interrupted by Blackford shouting “You’re a barefaced liar” and “Charlatan! Charlatan!”

Whether or not the prime minister is a charlatan, no member can call another a liar. But when the Speaker intervened to request Blackford to withdraw his unparliamentary language, he instead protested, “It’s on the face of the Bill that the government of the UK is going to trample over devolution, that is not a lie.”

At this, perhaps detecting a stunt by Blackford to garner publicity by being temporarily expelled from the chamber (street cred once achieved by Alex Salmond during a budget debate), the Speaker gently interjected, “Mr Blackford you’re a great member of this House, you do the right things by this House and I’ve accepted that you’ve withdrawn it.”

As soon as honourable members’ attention left him, Blackford glanced away from the Speaker and up towards the gallery. He then winked.

Under Keir Starmer, Labour policy is to agree with government policy on tackling Covid-19 but to criticise shortcomings and incompetence in the execution of that policy. It means that opposition to the principles of that government policy is now the preserve of a select band of Tory backbenchers.

Sir Desmond Swayne is one such desperado. As PMQs ended, he raised a point of order asking why the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, had failed to give “notice of the government’s intention to further restrict our liberty to meet with one another in his statement yesterday?” Had he done so, “at least some of us would have been able to question him about it. What remedy is there for those of us who enthusiastically support the prime minister but nevertheless want to restrain the government’s ability to govern by order without debate?”

On the subject of the executive riding roughshod over the legislature in the name of the paramount god of public safety, there is no greater guardian of older wisdom than Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House.

“I think the total disregard for this chamber is not acceptable,” Sir Lindsay scolded. “I know the prime minister is a member of parliament as well and he will ensure that statements should be made here first.” His voice rising to that of an extremely angry headmaster, the Speaker then put the boot in, “especially as this particular Secretary of State requests statements and then to ignore the major fact that he wanted to put to the country not to put before this house is not acceptable. And I hope he will apologise to members.”

At a time when few seem especially concerned that normal life is being curtailed without debate in the Commons, it is refreshing to be reminded that parliament should still matter.

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