Prime Minister’s Questions on the 8th January was the first of 2020 and it provided a number of indicators for where politics is heading in the New Year.
So here are the eight most important things about the session:
Jeremy Corbyn used his questions to attack the government on its handling of the Iran crisis, following the US assassination of General Qasam Suleimani and the shooting down of a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane over Iran.
The key word used by Boris was De-escalation, with the UK urging restraint on both sides.
Corbyn tried to portray the Prime Minister as Trump’s lapdog, restrained by the need for a trade deal with the US post Brexit. His backbenchers were largely silent and appeared unenthusiastic about the line of questioning.
Corbyn is making it too easy to portray Labour as supporting enemies of the West like Suleimani. Labour need to change their strategy if they are to rebuild trust with the voters and a clearer focus on domestic issues would be a good place to start.
SNP Leader Ian Blackford, called for another referendum on Scotland’s future in the UK. This call was repeated later on by two more of his colleagues. Their case is that Scotland has elected a nationalist government three times and opposed leaving the EU, so circumstances have changed since 2014.
The PM replied that the 2014 referendum is still quite recent (it was referred to as a ‘Once in a Generation’ vote) and that the SNP should concentrate on improving the quality of services they offer to Scotland. He also highlighted the £9 billion per year they receive from the Treasury, which they would have to make up if they left.
There are some justifiably unhappy MPs when it comes to rail services.
Labour’s Yvonne Fovargue laid into Northern Rail and Conservative Harriett Baldwin had some strong criticisms of West Midlands Rail.
The PM replied that he was considering changes to the franchising process and the ‘The Bell Was Tolling’ for some operators. It was a not very coded criticism which should encourage operators to raise their game.
Brendan O’Hara from the SNP started his question with the words ‘Margaret Thatcher’, which provoked an unexpected burst of cheering from the government benches.
Aside from any questions about behaviour, this would have been unthinkable not so long ago. It shows how Thatcher’s reputation has enjoyed a revival in recent years – no doubt helped by opposition members who claim that Boris is ‘Worse Than Thatcher’ when many people don’t see him as being at all unreasonable…
Tory MPs David Morris, Steve Double and rising star Dehenna Davison all raised constituency issues which required investment or the reversal of government decisions. Boris had warm words for them all, and promises of action.
Investing in regions outside London is going to be a priority for the new government, not least because they need to convert temporary Conservative voters into permanent supporters.
It’s a good time for backbenchers to bring their investment plans to London.
We didn’t hear much from the defeated Lib Dems this time.
However the new Conservative Eastleigh MP Paul Holmes, did encourage the PM to criticise his Lib Dem council’s house building projects which are unpopular with local residents. Boris gave a somewhat half hearted response which came as no surprise – at City Hall he was always reluctant to attack Labour or Lib Dem councils when Conservative AMs urged him to do so.
Boris is less confrontational than opponents like to portray him – he is certainly no Donald Trump.
Lindsay Hoyle is a very good Chair, making very few interjections unlike his predecessor.
The debate flowed better without the constant interruptions and it enabled more backbenchers to raise questions – which should be the priority for a good Speaker.
Having chaired Boris Johnson’s Mayor’s Question Time, I know it isn’t easy to master this situation. To do so with such a light hand is a great accomplishment.
Labour’s Karl Turner concluded the session by seeking the PMs support for the actions of his constituent Steven Gallant. He is serving a life sentence but on 29th November he was one of the brave people who tackled the knife wielding terrorist on London Bridge, saving many innocent lives. Boris quite rightly expressed the nation’s gratitude to Mr Gallant.
A good note to conclude Prime Minister’s Questions on the 8th January.
Finally, I’m available to give briefings on the new government, Prime Minister and coming London Elections so contact me for details.