It is safe to say that, however Sir Keir Starmer imagined his first Prime Minister’s Question Time as leader of the opposition, it probably wasn’t like this: addressing an eerily empty chamber, with the vast majority of MPs tuning in via Zoom, and facing Boris Johnson’s de facto deputy while the PM continues to recover.
Still, Starmer made the best of it, and will be satisfied with his performance. His polite but probing style (exactly what you’d expect from a career barrister) was note-worthy only because it differed so dramatically from the shambolic performances we have all grown accustomed to from Jeremy Corbyn.
The only nod to his predecessor’s approach was in reading out an account from care worker about being “terrified” and having to wear “homemade masks” due to the lack of personal protective equipment. But whereas Corbyn would have played up the outrage, Starmer remained calm and cordial throughout.
Whether pointing out the discrepancy between the government’s stated testing capabilities and the actual number carried out or highlighting reports of British firms now supplying PPE abroad after their offers to the UK government were ignored, Starmer’s strategy was cooly forensic. When he said he was “disappointed” that the government didn’t have a figure on care worker deaths and promised “I put the First Secretary on notice that I’ll be asking the same question next week, and hopefully we can have a better answer”, it was clear this wasn’t going to slip his mind. Dominic Raab was left with little space for the bluster and misdirection of a normal boisterous PMQs session.
But then, there was nothing normal about this occasion. The deafening braying that is usually such a feature of this weekly rigamarole was replaced by the same refrain from both Starmer and Raab about “paying tribute” to NHS and care workers.
Indeed, Raab’s understated performance also proved well suited to this new pared-down format. True, he looked as worn out as you would expect of someone thrust into a leadership role three weeks ago who hasn’t slept since. That said, he has clearly grown in confidence since assuming responsibility, and his answers were succinct and self-assured. He has had practice – Starmer’s questions on testing, care homes, and PPE were mostly repeats of questions raised daily at the government press briefings. And if his tone occasionally sounded a tad frenzied, who can blame him – it’s how we all feel.
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Overall, the mood of this virtual PMQs started out somewhat flat, and there was an inevitable technical glitch when former Scottish Secretary David Mundell was unable to connect (a standard feature of all video conferences ever), but the questions from MPs via Zoom actually worked surprisingly well.
It was refreshing – not to mention desperately necessary after weeks of democratic neglect – to see MPs raising issues pertinent to their local areas and constituents: council funding, writing off hospital debt, repatriating stranded British nationals, domestic tourism, and even the prognosis for British zoos. These subject may not be high-profile enough to always make it into the daily Downing Street press briefings, but it is vital that MPs continue to represent the interests of their constituents, and that the government knows it cannot overlook them forever.
When Tory Peter Bone demanded to know “What on earth is going on? When are banks going to act in the national interest?” and Labour’s Lucy Powell asked about the plight of the hospitality and retail sector it was a relief to see that someone has been paying attention.
It was also intriguing to get a glimpse into MPs’ home offices. Viewers may have noticed Ian Blackford’s small collection of footballs in the background, Nicholas Fletcher’s brave choice of wallpaper, Ruth Cadbury’s colourful art collection, and the well-stocked bookshelves of Liz Saville Roberts and Angela Eagle. Proof, then, that our MPs may in fact be human after all. Labour’s Barry Gardiner appeared to be being beamed in from a Travel Lodge.
A final special shout-out must go to House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle – not because he stole the show, but because he very adamantly did not. His brisk, non-nonsense attitude delivered a dose of normality to this extraordinary set-up. He switched smoothly between MPs present in the chamber and those participating by video-link, and ensured that the session wrapped up promptly.
Imagine if former Speaker John Bercow had been in charge, playing to the crowd at home and amplifying his bellows of “Ooorrrddeerrr!” to carry across the nation, never mind the broken laptop speakers? Thankfully, Bercow belongs to another era.