PMQs: The reboot

The main characters have their character arcs amusingly inverted

Ah, the happy moment when a favourite TV series begins its new season. What changes will the characters have undergone during their break? Who’s grown a beard? Which actor missed filming the first episode because they’d just had a baby, necessitating dialogue about a dying relative that explains their character’s absence?

So it turned out to be with Prime Minister’s Questions. Fans, if there are any, will recall that when we last joined the gang, surprised haystack Boris Johnson was clinging to office by a thread, beset with revelations that his office had doubled as a nightclub for stressed politicos during previous lockdowns, and hit by a massive rebellion of his own MPs which meant that he could only get his expansion of Covid restrictions through Parliament with the help of Labour. Would he even be in the series when it came back?

Perhaps we’ll be told that the new Johnson character has never been able to have children

None of this was evident when Parliament returned on Wednesday. Instead, we learned that the Johnson character arc had been retroactively rewritten over Christmas. Gone was the prime minister who had speculated in a live press conference about forcing people to get vaccinated. Forgotten was the man who summoned his Cabinet to spend close to three hours discussing whether more rules were needed to stop the spread of the Omicron variant. Now it turns out that Johnson was fighting AGAINST those restrictions! He was the hero all along! (Or possibly the villain. Check back at the end of January for an update on how this pans out.)

As for Tory MPs, last seen falling over each other to discuss who might have submitted a letter of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, we now learn that actually they are all super-loyal to the prime minister. Theresa May even praised him for resisting lockdowns. Theresa May! Praising Boris Johnson!

It was starting to feel less like a new series and more like a reboot, one in which key players have their arcs amusingly inverted to delight old fans and new. Perhaps we’ll be told that the new Johnson character has never been able to have children.

The key player who was missing from the drama was Keir Starmer, isolating, once again, with Covid. This is his sixth personal lockdown, and his second round of infection. However much Tory MPs think they want Covid to be over, it’s hard to imagine they want it more than Starmer must.

In his place rose Angela Rayner, who clearly relished the opportunity to show everyone how it’s done. Why, she wanted to know, had the prime minister claimed that fears of inflation were “unfounded”?

“Of course, I said no such thing,” Johnson replied, although — of course — Sky News within seconds reminded us that he had said it to them, three months and about 15 crises ago. He tried to change the subject.

Tory MPs pretended to believe him, and cheered their new hero of the resistance

“Never let it be forgotten that when Omicron hit this country, what was the instinctive response of Labour Members?” He paused. Was he going to thank the opposition for voting with the government? Not quite. “They said that we needed a road map to lock down!”

This is not, of course, correct.  It is right that Labour was worried about Omicron, but then so was Johnson. Nevertheless, Tory MPs pretended to believe him, and cheered their new hero of the resistance.

Rayner pressed on, asking again and again about the rising bills facing households. She pointed out that Johnson, who had said six years ago that leaving the EU would allow the government to cut VAT on fuel bills, was refusing to cut VAT on fuel bills.

The prime minister didn’t like this at all. He began to yell. Pensioners were getting £140 to help with their fuel bills each week, he said — it is each year — and it was “effrontery” for Labour to call for a VAT cut because they had opposed Brexit. It was “bare-faced cheek,” he shouted. More than that, he went on: “Everyone knows full well that that would be absolutely impossible if they were to do what Labour would do and go back into the EU and remain aligned with the EU single market. That is the objective of the Labour party.”

It was meant to sound triumphant, but it sounded deluded. Rayner looked at him across the dispatch box. “Are you OK?” she asked. He wasn’t. By the time she had finished, Johnson looked like a boxer saved by the bell, slumped in his corner and breathing heavily, shaking his head as he stared at his opponent.

What will he be claiming by the next session, and will his MPs still be standing by him? Will Starmer still be locked down, and if not, will he suffer in comparison to his deputy? Find out in next week’s exciting instalment.

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