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Boris Johnson began Prime Ministers Questions with a tribute saying, “I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who sadly passed away on Saturday. His leadership had a profound impact on our whole country and across the world. May his memory be a blessing. This morning, I attended the service at Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the tomb of the unknown warrior. Armistice Day allows us to give thanks to all those who have served, and continue to serve, and those who have given their lives in service of this country.” Glaringly absent from his PMQ preamble was any mention of the US Election that was belatedly called in favour of Democrat Jo Biden, not his ally Trump.
Labor MP Ruth Cadbury laid bare a festering wound of Tory incompetence and conscious cruelty by stating that, “According to Home Office figures, just 12% of Windrush victims have received compensation and nine people have died waiting. This is two and a half years after the Windrush taskforce was set up. What will the Government do and what will the Prime Minister do both to rectify this injustice and to ensure that no others who have come to the UK to live and work suffer in the same way as the Windrush victims?” Dismissively the PM replied, “The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. What happened to the Windrush generation was a disgrace and a scandal, and we are doing our best collectively to make amends. I can tell her I have met members of that generation, and this Government are taking steps to accelerate the payments and to make sure that those who are in line with payments are given every opportunity and all the information they need to avail themselves of the compensation that they deserve.”
Tory Fiona Bruce raised a typical non-question, eliciting the PMs standard waffle, “Yes, indeed, and I thank my hon. Friend for…” Keir Starmer added to the PMs condolence and remembrance sentiments by raising the, “terrible events in Saudi Arabia this morning.” Starmer gleefully welcomed “the victory of President-elect Biden and Vice-President-elect Harris,” with a not so subtle dig at Johnson’s ‘ally’ Trump, by referring to his win as, “a new era of decency, integrity and compassion in the White House?” He must have been really shocked that Boris Johnson had not tried to egotistically claim the news of a vaccine as a personal triumph, but said, “May I also welcome the fantastic news about a possible breakthrough in the vaccine? It is early days, but this will give hope to millions of people that there is light at the end of the tunnel.” As it was Armistice day he then turned to veterans, “Today is Armistice Day, and I am sure the whole House will join me in praising the remarkable work of the veterans charities such as Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion.”
It was a pitch the PM would have difficulty not supporting so Starmer said, “Like many other charities, Help for Heroes has seen a significant drop in its funding during this pandemic, and it is now having to take very difficult decisions about redundancies and keeping open recovery centres for veterans. So can the Prime Minister commit today that the Government will do whatever they can to make sure our armed forces charities have the support that they need so that they can carry on supporting our veterans?”
The PM evaded any Tory Government commitment or responsibility by saying, “I echo entirely what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about Help for Heroes; it is a quite remarkable charity and does wonderful things for veterans. In these difficult times, many charities are, of course, finding it tough, and in addition to what the Government are doing to support charities through cutting business rates on their premises and cutting VAT on their shops, I urge everybody wherever possible to make online contributions to charities that are currently struggling.”
Starmer didn’t let it drop, “I thank the Prime Minister for his reply. The truth is the Chancellor’s package for forces charities was just £6 million during this pandemic, and that is just not sufficient. May I ask the Prime Minister to reconsider that support on their behalf, because at the same time we have all seen this weekend that the Government can find £670,000 for PR consultants?” High time Starmer began drilling down on the grotesque misspending of public money squandered on contracts inappropriately awarded by this Government to their Tory cronies without any tendering, oversight or accountability. Starmer said, “that is the tip of the iceberg: new research today shows that the Government have spent at least £130 million of taxpayers’ money on PR companies, and that is in this year alone. Does the Prime Minister think that is a reasonable use of taxpayers’ money?”
Boris Johnson tried to divert attention from the obscene plundering of public funds by linking it to the positive news of a vaccine breakthrough, saying, “I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to the vaccines taskforce, and after days in which the Labour party has attacked the vaccines taskforce, I think it might be in order for him to pay tribute to it for securing 40 million doses. By the way, the expenditure to which he refers was to help to raise awareness of vaccines, to fight the anti-vaxxers and to persuade the people of this country—300,000—to take part in trials without which we cannot have vaccines. So I think he should take it back.” It was a familiar tactic, cover the latest incompetence and corruption by moving in the opposite direction and then turning any lack of resounding support into a gross deficiency on the part of the opposition for which they must bear shame.
Johnson’s typical, ‘your guilt not mine’ trick always stops Starmer in his tracks and he starts into pathetic defensive grovelling, “Nobody is attacking individuals, everybody is supporting the vaccine, but £130 million, Prime Minister: there is a real question about the way that contracts are being awarded and about basic transparency and accountability. I know the Prime Minister does not like that, but this is not the Prime Minister’s money; it is taxpayers’ money. The Prime Minister may well not know the value of the pound in his pocket, but the people who send us here do, and they expect us to spend it wisely. Let me illustrate an example of the Government’s lax attitude to taxpayers’ money. Earlier this year, the Government paid about £150 million to a company called Ayanda Capital to deliver face masks. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how many usable face masks were actually provided to NHS workers on the frontline under that contract?” Starmer had rallied to launch an even more specific attack.
Predictably Johnson rolled out his standard excuse, “We are in the middle of a global pandemic in which this Government have so far secured and delivered 32 billion items of personal protective equipment; and, yes, it is absolutely correct that it has been necessary to work with the private sector and with manufacturers who provide such equipment, some of them more effectively than others, but it is the private sector that in the end makes the PPE, it is the private sector that provides the testing equipment, and it is the private sector that no matter how much the Labour party may hate it, provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs.”
Keir Starmer was not about to be fobbed of with opportunistic Tory ‘crisis’ excuses and generalities; he had a prime example of their squandering and he was going to spill the beans: “The answer is none: not a single face mask—at a cost of £150 million.” But there was more… “That is not an isolated example.” At long last it would seem Starmer is presenting robust opposition.
Starmer was on a roll, “We already know that consultants are being paid £7,000 a day to work on test and trace, and a company called Randox has been given a contract, without process, for £347 million; that is the same company that had to recall 750,000 unused covid tests earlier this summer on safety grounds. There is a sharp contrast between the way the Government spray money at companies that do not deliver and their reluctance to provide long-term support to businesses and working people at the sharp end of this crisis. The Chancellor spent months saying that extending furlough was ‘not the kind of certainty that British businesses or British workers need’—[Official Report, 24 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 1157]— only then to do a U-turn at the last minute. Yesterday’s unemployment figures show the cost of that delay: redundancies up by a record 181,000 in the last quarter. What is the Prime Minister’s message to those who have lost their jobs because of the Chancellor’s delay?”
The PM was on the ropes… “With great respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he knows full well that the furlough programme has continued throughout this pandemic. It went right the way through to October; it is now going through to March. It is one of the most generous programmes in the world, with 80% of income supported by this Government and an overall package of £210 billion going in to support jobs, families and livelihoods throughout this country. I think this country can be very proud of the way we have looked after the entire population, and we are going to continue to do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should bear in mind that the net effect of those furlough programmes—all the provision that we have made—is disproportionately beneficial for the poorest and neediest in society, which is what one nation Conservatism is all about.” He had deftly avoided any response to the accusation of recklessly squandering public money – another question asked but not answered as esual.
Starmer was making much better use of his questions to attack the PM over issues the public remains truly outraged over; PMQs is not about the space number of MPs in the Chamber, it’s about the media take on what gets raised. Starmer was pummeled Johnson, “The Prime Minister must know that because the furlough was not extended until the last minute, thousands of people were laid off. The figures tell a different story: redundancies, as I say, at a record high of 181,000; 780,000 off the payroll since March; the Office for National Statistics saying unemployment is rising sharply—so much for putting their arms around everybody. The trouble is that the British people are paying the price for the mistakes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. If they had handed contracts to companies that could deliver, public money would have been saved. If they had extended furlough sooner, jobs would have been saved. If they had brought in a circuit breaker when the science said so, lives would have been saved.” This was a good triple slam!
Starmer wasn’t finished, “Let me deal with another mistake. The Chancellor has repeatedly failed to close gaps in support for the self-employed. Millions are affected by this. It is bad enough to have made that mistake in March, but seven months on, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says the scheme remains, its words, ‘wasteful and badly targeted for the self-employed’. The Institute of Directors says: ‘Many self-employed…continue to be left out in the cold.’ After seven months and so many warnings, why are the Chancellor and the Prime Minister still failing our self-employed?” The PM vaulted from his pathetic ‘crisis’ excuse to standard bragging mode, “Unquestionably, this pandemic has been hard on the people of this country, and unquestionably there are people who have suffered throughout the pandemic and people whose livelihoods have suffered, but we have done everything that we possibly can to help. As for the self-employed, 2.6 million of them have received support, at a cost of £13 billion—quite right.”
The PM was sounding desperate adding, “We have also, of course, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, uprated universal credit. That will continue until next year. He now champions universal credit, by the way, and calls for its uprating to be extended. He stood on a manifesto to abolish universal credit.” Replace it with a benefit system that is fit for purpose more like, but that was not the point Starmer went after when he replied, “The Prime Minister just doesn’t get it. I know very well that the self-employment income support scheme has been extended, but the Prime Minister must know that that scheme simply does not apply to millions of self-employed people. They have been left out for seven months. There is a real human cost to this.”
Starmer identified one of those affected saying, “This week on LBC, I spoke to a self-employed photographer called Chris. He said to me: ‘Our…industry has been devastated… Three million of us that have fallen through the cracks… Our businesses are falling—absolutely falling—and crashing each day.’ He asked me to raise that with the Chancellor. I will do the next best thing. What would the Prime Minister say to Chris and millions like him who are desperately waiting for the Chancellor to address this injustice?” This was perhaps Keir Starmer’s single most impressive performance at PMQs as he took full advantage of the questions allotted to him; if only he was this aggressive in his questioning every time. Johnson appeared dazed by the volume and ferocity of opposition questioning, but he knew that Starmer’s quota was done. It was the PMs time to dismiss the virulent attack and proceed with his routine effusive PR spin aimed at the media hoping they would compliantly drown out Starmer’s attacks with positive vaccine news.
The PM said, “What I would say to Chris, and what I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and to the whole country, is the best way to get his job working again, the best way to get this country back on its feet, is to continue on the path that we are driving the virus down. It is a week since we entered into the tough autumn measures that we are now in. I am grateful to the people of this country for the sacrifices that they are making, and I am particularly grateful to the people of Liverpool and elsewhere—tens of thousands of people in Liverpool are taking part in the mass testing work that is going on there. It is fantastic news that we now have the realistic prospect of a vaccine. Science has given us two big boxing gloves, as it were, with which to pummel this virus, but neither of them is capable of delivering a knockout blow on its own. That is why this country needs to continue to work hard, to keep discipline and to observe the measures that we have put in.”
In a shameless denial of the battering he’d just endured from Starmer, Johnson said, “I am grateful for the support that the Labour party is now giving for those measures. That is the way to do it: hands, face, space; follow the guidance, protect the NHS and save lives.” Tory Laurence Robertson offered much needed ‘stoking’, “As we and all countries across the world tackle the pandemic, is it not right that we also have to secure our post-EU future? Are we not doing that by securing help for our rural communities and securing our borders?” Relieved the PM replied, “Absolutely; I thank my hon. Friend. I can tell him that the landmark Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill receives Royal Assent today, thanks to this House, paving the way for the fulfilling of our manifesto commitment to end free movement and have a new, fair points-based immigration system, one of the advantages of leaving the European Union that the right hon and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) would of course like to reverse.”
The Speaker said, “Let us head up to Scotland and the leader of the SNP, Ian Blackford.” Joining the debate via zoom, Blackford said, “May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the death of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks? This being Armistice Day, we commemorate the day 102 years ago on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month when the guns fell silent and all those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in conflict since then.” He too took the opportunity to congratulate the US President saying, “I also want to send our best wishes to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on winning the election in north America. I look forward to the leadership they will show on the issues of climate change and fighting back against covid among other things.” All our MPs and Party Leaders know that their congratulations in the House of Commons during PMQs will be reported on by the US media, which is what makes Boris Johnson’s embarrassing failure to offer his congratulations such a petty-minded undiplomatic snub.
Blackford continue, “The figures published by the Office for National Statistics yesterday demonstrate what the SNP has been warning about for months: that the UK faces a growing Tory unemployment crisis. It is now beyond doubt that the Chancellor’s last-minute furlough U-turn came far too late for thousands who have already lost their jobs as a result of Tory cuts, delays and dither. UK unemployment has now risen to 4.8%. Redundancies are at a record high and nearly 800,000 fewer people are in employment. To support those who have lost their incomes, will the Prime Minister now commit to making the £20 uplift to universal credit permanent and to extending it to legacy benefits, so that no one, no one, Prime Minister, is left behind?”
In a disgraceful demonstration of his total lack of self-awareness Johnson yet again attempted to conflate opposition demands to plug the gaping holes in the dysfunctional Tory benefit system as a resounding endorsement chronically failing Universal Credit. It was extremely insulting when the PM replied, “I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, the leader of the Scottish nationalists is now supporting universal credit. He was opposed to it at the last election. Yes, of course that uplift continues until March. I am delighted to say that the furlough scheme is being extended right the way through to March as well. That will support people across our whole United Kingdom, protecting jobs and livelihoods across the whole UK in exactly the way that he and I would both want.”
Blackford was having none of it, this would not be an easy PMQs for the PM as he once again came under attack over gaps in UC, “May I respectfully say to the Prime Minister that the idea is that he tries to answer the question that has been put to him? It is shameful that the Prime Minister still refuses to give a commitment to the £20 uprating of universal credit. The SNP will continue to demand a permanent U-turn on Tory plans to cut universal credit. Another group who have been left behind by this Prime Minister are the 3 million people who have been completely excluded from UK Government support. Since the start of this crisis, the Prime Minister has repeatedly refused to lift a finger to help those families. In the run-up to Christmas, those forgotten millions will be among those who are struggling to get by and are worried about their future. Will the Prime Minister finally fix the serious gaps in his support schemes to help the excluded, or will he make it a bitter winter for millions of families across the United Kingdom?”
There was no commitment from the PM to bail out the impoverished masses, “The right hon. Gentleman knows, I hope, that we are not only continuing with the uprating of universal credit until next year, but we have invested £210 billion in jobs and livelihoods. We have also just brought forward a winter support package for the poorest and neediest: supporting young people and kids who need school meals, and supporting people throughout our society throughout the tough period of covid, as I think the entire country would expect. That is the right thing to do and we will continue to do it.” It was the usual BS. Tory ‘levelling up’ is all about plundering from the working poor to enrich the wealthy elite; it is the same old austerity scam under new Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ misnaming! When will the public catch on to the truth? When will we question the ‘borrowed votes’ that led to an unfathomable ‘landslide victory’ in the Covert 2019 Rigged Election? We need to fully Investigate all of the Tory corruption before it is too late: we must Get the Tories Out Now! DO NOT MOVE ON!