The first weeks of 2022 have had quite enough drama to last us the whole year. Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesdays has developed a must-watch quality that was previously reserved for the final of the Great British Bake-off. I find myself studying the oratorical approach adopted by Boris Johnson. Previously, I analysed his strategies for (usually not) answering questions in a session of a Select Committee. In PMQs the style is different. It's a gladiatorial context where the goal is to earn howls of approval for trouncing your opponent.
Last week we had the unusual sight of a remorseful Boris Johnson, trying to convince the nation that he was truly, truly sorry for allowing parties to take place on his watch, during a period when we had extremely severe lockdown rules that were preventing people seeing dying relatives or attending funerals. It was one of those apologies where you sensed he was sorry at having been found out, rather than for having done something wrong. But he clearly hoped this would be enough to settle the matter so we could put it behind us – at least until a whitewashing report is published. He had not reckoned with the Machiavellian cunning of his ex-advisor Dominic Cummings, who is drip-feeding damaging information to the media. This started a new story at the weekend, after Cummings contradicted Johnson’s denial that he knew about a party. So I wondered if we would have Remorse, the Sequel at yesterday’s PMQs.
Johnson, however, adopted the very strategy that he had previously learned from Cummings – brazen it out. So we had the bizarre sight of a Prime Minister who has lost confidence of his own party because they no longer trust what he says, doubling down and telling yet more lies to convince everyone that this is an Absolutely Splendid Government, and he is a the best chap to lead them. (My thanks to Hansard for this transcript of the debate).
Here is a selection of some of the more questionable claims (there is more, but I have a day job!):
“We are building 40 new hospitals.” Cf this analysis by FullFact. One might add that the biggest problem faced by the NHS is lack of staff, rather than buildings.
“We have also been cutting crime by 10% and putting 11,000 more police officers out on the streets” – I guess this is an improvement on previous claims of 20,000 more police officers, but it’s been debunked as misleading, given that this is reinstating police that were previously cut.
“We now have the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and GDP is now back up above pre-pandemic levels.” Here, Google just led me to a Government report from the previous day which stated: “In Q3 2021, UK GDP grew by 1.1% compared with the previous quarter (Q2 2021), while GDP rose by 2.2% in the Eurozone and 0.6% in the US. Compared to the pre-pandemic peak, UK GDP in Q3 2021 was 1.5% lower, compared with 1.1% lower in Germany and 0.3% lower in the Eurozone. In the US GDP was 1.4% higher.
“Thanks to the efforts of people across Whitehall, this country is now capable of producing 80% of our own PPE.” I couldn’t find recent data that might be the basis for this claim, but talking up their record on PPE as a source of pride seems a rash move by a Government whose shambolic handling of this issue was documented in a report by the Public Accounts Committee in Feb 2021: “...its failure to be transparent about decisions, publish contracts in a timely manner or maintain proper records of key decisions left it open to accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers, and undermines public trust in government procurement and the use of taxpayers’ money. Between February and July 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care spent over 12 billion on 32 billion items of PPE. We are concerned that the Department has so far identified items worth hundreds of millions of pounds which are unusable for their intended purpose, putting the efficient use of taxpayers’ money at further risk.”
As Daisy Cooper noted on Twitter, Johnson also repeated the claim that the vaccine rollout would not have been possible except for Brexit – a claim that has been debunked more than once
Then there was this extraordinary claim: “I will tell you what this Government have been doing to look after the people of this country throughout this pandemic and beyond. We have been cutting the cost of living and helping them with the living wage. We have been cutting taxes for people on low pay. We have been increasing payments for people suffering the costs of fuel- “ People don’t need to consult Google to challenge this rosy vision of life in the UK. We can simply take use of foodbanks as an indicator of how many people are living in serious poverty. We had barely heard of foodbanks before this Government came into power – now more and more people depend on them just to exist. Not only is the cost of living going up, Jack Monroe noted that the way it is computed underestimates the impact on the poorestNo, Prime Minister, you can’t talk your way out of this one. People are worried about what the future holds, but they are not going to reject the evidence of their eyes and ears