Not sorry they haven’t a clue

Panel show politics suits the Prime Minister more than his Home Secretary


Prime Minister’s Questions under Boris Johnson resembles a Radio 4 panel game. Not Brain of Britain, obviously. Nor anything that bans repetition or deviation. Possibly one where people compete to tell the most outrageous untruth. But most of all, one where whatever the subject of the question, the person giving the answer has to get to the subject of Labour lockdown policy as quickly as possible.

Johnson made his bid for panel show glory

There has been an uneasy truce at PMQs for the last couple of weeks, where Johnson and Keir Starmer resist tearing lumps out of each other in order to display unity in the face of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. A break from questions about parties has undoubtedly helped the prime minister, but for Starmer, keen to get as far from Jeremy Corbyn as possible, it does no harm at all to take opportunities to sound Tough On Putin.

This Wednesday, there were signs the truce had lifted, at least partially. Instead of asking about sanctions, Starmer went for energy bills, a disaster that is coming down the tracks towards the government like an express train. With bills going up by £700, Rishi Sunak’s plan for a mandatory £200 loan for each household is looking like the worst of all worlds: something messy and complicated that won’t solve the problem. “When will the prime minister force the chancellor into a U-turn?” Starmer asked.

Johnson replied that rising bills were Labour’s fault. This delighted his MPs, and prompted the Cabinet to point at the Labour benches as if they had been caught in the act. But it’s 12 years since Labour left office, so the party’s potency as an alibi is surely wearing thin.

Starmer had another crack, pointing out that bills are going to go up by £700 next month and then by another £1,000 in October. Johnson pleaded that the government had spent £20 billion trying to take the edge off these rises, but the fear among MPs is that the public won’t even notice. “A U-turn is the last thing we want,” the prime minister closed.

“We will see how long that position lasts,” Starmer replied, to laughter.

And then Johnson made his bid for panel show glory. The challenge, remember, was to get from rising electricity charges to Labour’s approach to Covid in a single answer. “We are helping households with the cost of energy bills to the tune of £9.1 billion,” he began. The audience behind him sensed that he was going to make an attempt for the prize. “Why can this government afford to do that?” Here it came. “Why can we afford to put huge quantities of taxpayers’ money into supporting households with their energy costs?” Tell us why, cried Tory MPs! Tell us! “I will tell you why, Mr Speaker: it is because we have the fastest growth in the G7!”

Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that Gove is not the Home Secretary,

Nothing could stop him now. He was Paul Merton speaking on the subject of Sudoku with only 15 seconds to go. He was Barry Cryer singing “Love Me Tender” to the theme tune from The Archers. “Do not forget,” he went on, “that if we had listened to Captain Hindsight” – all the hits were coming out now – “we would have stayed in lockdown and never achieved it!” He was speaking as the whistle blew! Mornington Crescent! We had lost count of the untruths he’d smuggled past the audience. It was masterful.

It was all downhill for him after that. The SNP’s Ian Blackford asked why the UK was struggling to give visas to Ukrainian refugees. The answer, of course, is that the Home Office has spent years setting up systems to make it something between “very difficult” and “impossible” for anyone to legally claim asylum in the UK. Requiring people to file paperwork they no longer have in secret offices that only open for two hours every other Wednesday is standard Home Office procedure. That’s how they keep us safe.

The prime minister’s reply to Blackford was intriguing. Michael Gove is about to announce a new visa route for refugees, he said. Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that Gove is not the Home Secretary, but after a week in which Priti Patel has repeatedly announced moves to help refugees only to be contradicted by reality the next day, Johnson has obviously lost patience. It was notable that when Julian Smith told him that “government change comes from the very top” and urged him to take personal control of refugee policy, the prime minister made no effort to defend his Home Secretary.

Patel was nowhere to be seen on Wednesday. Perhaps she has been confined to quarters. Maybe she too was recording an appearance on a panel show. She’s Sorry, She Hasn’t A Clue.

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