You couldn’t blame Keir Starmer for trying to solve the mystery of the government’s messaging on foreign travel. After all, in the last 24 hours it has changed from amber list countries being open to visits for family and friends, to then being closed to all travel, to being closed to only essential travel for business and family illness, to essential travel including foreign holidays. It’s just that prime minister’s questions was probably not the right forum for him to solicit the information. Partly because Boris Johnson still finds it impossible to answer a straight question, but mostly because even he doesn’t seem entirely sure.
Johnson began by saying that the UK had the strongest borders in the world. Which must make him wonder how it has managed to acquire the highest number of cases of the India variant outside India itself. And why India was put on the red list two weeks after Pakistan and Bangladesh, which had comparable levels of Covid 19 in early April. But that was by the by. What mattered was that he had now decided that people should only travel to amber list countries if it was absolutely essential.
OK, said the Labour leader, trying his best to catch up. So why, if the government didn’t want people travelling to amber countries, had it just made it easier for them to do so? And what was the precise difference in the advice for travelling to and from red list countries? He stopped short of suggesting that it might have been easier to dispense with the amber list entirely and put everywhere on red if you didn’t want people travelling to these places. Because that might have looked as if Labour was in favour of cancelling all foreign holidays for the foreseeable future. Which, I suppose, it might be. Labour can also be opaque when it wants to be.
This wasn’t Starmer at his best. It was his first PMQs since the dire local election results and his mind was as focused on his own backbenchers – how many of them still see him as a possible future prime minister? – as it was on Johnson. Yet even so, he did more than enough to rattle Boris into his default position of insisting that what the country really wanted was for the opposition to get behind the government and back its every move.
In Borisland, there is no distinction between his internal and external worlds. Everything must march to his narcissistic beat and he can’t be challenged. Just as his ideal relationship is one where he is free to do as he pleases, his preferred government is a one-party state with himself as leader. The idea that he operates in a parliamentary democracy where the opposition exists to oppose is something he finds almost unbearable.
Johnson was at it again later in the session, when Labour’s Justin Madders pointed out that it was 664 days since the Conservatives said it had a new comprehensive plan for social care and the health department was only now recruiting staff to help it come up with policy ideas. Boris’s only response was to say that Labour hadn’t done anything when it had been in power – hardly the present opposition’s fault – and that now was the time for it to stop “wibble-wobbling” and get behind the government’s social care plan. Even his own backbenchers seemed startled by that as it’s hard to get behind something that doesn’t yet exist. There again, I suppose, Boris has no trouble getting behind his own lies and fantasies, so at least he’s being consistent.
Then maybe Starmer had got more under Johnson’s skin – the two leaders can’t stand one another – than had first appeared. Because if the Labour leader is a bit under the cosh, then so is Boris. For all his bravado, he knows his roadmap is under threat, his travel guidance is a mess, he was far too slow to put India on the red list, and that cases of the India variant have risen by nearly 30% in the last two days. And to crown a bad day, his brand new £840-per-roll wallpaper that he’s been forced into paying for himself is peeling off the walls already. There’s a metaphor there somewhere.
Whatever the case, Johnson continued to operate well below par – even by his own standards – for the rest of the session. There was a lack of charm in all his answers to opposition MPs. Sooner or later it will dawn on him that outside Westminster – and even inside it – it’s not a great look to continually insult both Ian Blackford and the rest of the SNP. Especially when the SNP leader is voicing the genuine concerns of many Scottish farmers, not to mention the environment secretary himself, that that the proposed new trade deal with Australia could put them out of business. Boris may find that funny, but no one else does.
The lack of grace was most apparent when he was asked by Labour’s Andrew Slaughter how he felt about the decision of New Zealand nurse Jenny McGee to leave the NHS. Given that McGee had been part of the team that had saved his life last year, you might have expected some humility and gratitude; a sense that he was sorry she had reached the decision she had. Instead, he just ignored her. She should have been grateful for the 1%-below-inflation pay rise, and besides, there were 11,000 new nurses ready to take her place. This is the Johnson paradox. The prime minister with the man-of-the-people vibe who doesn’t give a shit about anyone but himself.