UK

HENRY DEEDES watches Keir Starmer’s fiery clash with Boris Johnson at PMQs

We’ve had to wait a while but Sir Keir Starmer’s lid finally blew yesterday. Out of nowhere, that neatly oiled head of his simply exploded like a shaken-up can of Vimto.

For months we have grown accustomed to the Labour leader occupying a saintly plinth inside the chamber, a beacon of trustworthiness, a model of upstanding propriety. The grown-up in the room, if you like.

At PMQs all that lawyerly cool finally disappeared in a few terse seconds. A mask slipped. A halo scuffed. Sir Keir effectively accused the Prime Minister of lying. Eek. Can’t say that in the Commons. Heavens no. Mustn’t go calling another politician dishonest. 

Not least as, when the dust finally settled on the most almighty ding-dong we’ve seen since the crisis began, it emerged that Sir Keir was the one being economical with the actualité. What a to-do. Unexpected? Absolutely. Unprecedented? Pretty much. 

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer pictured taking part in the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions, in a socially distanced session at the House of Commons on Wednesday

But for most of us, witnessing the Labour leader – who puts so much stock in his own sense of decorum – forced into such a humiliating climbdown was also strangely delicious.

The drama kicked off mid-way through what had hitherto been a humdrum PMQs, in which the Labour leader had been haranguing the PM for not properly shutting down our borders. Boris wasn’t keen on such a move. Too much fuss, too much faff getting supplies into the country.

Then, from nowhere, he chambered his silver bullet and fired.

He pointed out that our vaccination programme would still be at the ‘starting blocks’, like the rest of Europe, if Starmer had managed to force us to remain in the European Medicines Agency.

The Labour leader had previously demanded we do so, Boris pointed out, on no fewer than four occasions.

Hansard will state Sir Keir Starmer’s response to this accusation. Sadly, what the stenographers will not record was his reaction. It was a pearler. Pure slapstick.

The great prosecutor’s robotic coils twirled and whirred. Warning lamps flickered. Danger! Malfunction! Those unblinking eyes suddenly went into a full-blown fruit-machine spin. Were this a court case, Sir Keir would have been demanding an immediate adjournment to oil his circuits.

‘Complete nonsense! But don’t let the truth get in the way of a pre-prepared gag,’ he huffed, throwing out a dismissive arm. ‘The Prime Minister knows I’ve never said that, not from this dispatch or anywhere else. The truth escapes him.’

It had all been a simple misunderstanding apparently. Starmer had misheard Boris (pictured above) and thought he¿d said Labour had wanted to join the EU vaccine programme

It had all been a simple misunderstanding apparently. Starmer had misheard Boris (pictured above) and thought he’d said Labour had wanted to join the EU vaccine programme

The Tory benches scoffed in disbelief. In normal times, when the benches are chock-a-block there’d have been pandemonium.

Meanwhile, down in front of them, it was now the turn of Boris’s eyes to go walkabout, rolling and bobbling about in their sockets in mock disbelief.

He’d expected Starmer to ignore him, not to issue a flat-out denial. ‘Consult YouTube!’ the PM suggested.

The Twittersphere didn’t need asking twice. Social media suddenly exploded. All at once, videos showing Sir Keir espousing the EMA were springing up everywhere. He’d certainly said it four times, just as Boris said. Others had found more. Mark Francois (Con, Rayleigh & Wickford) leapt to his stubby feet calling a point of order. He tried read out one of Sir Keir’s previous comments but Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle ordered him to pipe down.

Quite right: Field Marshal Francois is one of parliament’s more shameless rabble-rousers.

As the drama continued to unfold, Sir Keir sat guppy-eyed, twirling his right foot round and round like a helicopter rotor, as poisoned as a thousand wasp stings. After the Speaker called time, Sir Keir and Boris made their way towards the exit. Their altercation seemed to continue. It looked civil enough. The PM wore the satisfied smirk of someone who’d just got one over his opponent.

A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Prime Minister Boris Johnson, centre, taking part in the weekly Prime Minister's Questions at the House of Commons

A handout photograph released by the UK Parliament shows Prime Minister Boris Johnson, centre, taking part in the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions at the House of Commons

Reports differ as to what occurred afterwards, when the pair reached the lobby. Some claim it got so heated that Sir Keir had to be escorted away by one of his whips. Boris on the other hand had tried to calm things down, it was said.

No, nothing more than a ‘friendly chat’ a Labour spokesman insisted. Thank you, move along, nothing to see here.

Come tea-time a grovelling apology is issued. It had all been a simple misunderstanding apparently. Starmer had misheard Boris and thought he’d said Labour had wanted to join the EU vaccine programme. He’d been wrong all along. Dare say a few wastepaper baskets Chez Starmer got kicked around the office after that admission.

Later, at 6pm, Sir Keir was outside his North London home, joining the applause for Captain Tom. He looked withdrawn, pained almost. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume he’d spent time in the bathroom scrubbing the egg from his face.


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