PMQs sketch: Starmer misses an open goal on free school meals

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of CommonsLabour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons
It was a Prime Minister’s Questions so confusing that by the end, no one knew who anyone was, or what side they were on. In the goalmouth scramble, Boris Johnson accused the most veteran Unionist MPs of being a cryptonationalist, and Sir Keir Starmer offered to swap places with the Prime Minister so many times that he was mistakenly given the captain’s armband by the Commons Speaker.

Strangest of all was how Johnson, who the previous day had looked so disinterested at the daily coronavirus press conference, suddenly found energy to put the Labour leader on the defensive - in a week that the Prime Minister got a lesson in leadership from a 22 year-old footballer.

To be equally unfair to everyone involved, the question of reopening schools has been universally bungled by all sides, whether in London or Edinburgh. But viewers in Scotland should recall that the UK Government originally said it would bring back all primary school pupils before the summer holidays in England.

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Schools were also given just a couple of weeks’ notice to prepare for the first classes to return. Unions, local authorities, headteachers and opposition parties blasted the lack of consultation, and sure enough, the target was dropped.

So at first it seemed bold for Johnson to respond to questions on rising levels of child poverty by going on the attack over schools. But as Jurgen Klopp will tell you, in football, you only have to score more than your opponent.

One of the best ways to improve life chances, the Prime Minister hit back, “would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now, because their schools are safe.

“Last week, I asked him whether he would say publicly that schools were safe to go back to. He hummed and hawed.”

After weeks of brutal cross examination by Starmer at PMQs, there was joy in Johnson’s voice as he finally pricked the lawyer’s ego: “Now is his time to say clearly that schools are safe to go back to. Mr Speaker: your witness.”

The Labour leader tried to pivot to the government’s promise of extra coronavirus cash for local councils, but Johnson held on to the ball and kept up the counterattack: “Let’s hear it from him one more time: will he say that schools are safe to go back to? Come on!”

“This is turning into Opposition questions,” Starmer complained. “If the Prime Minister wants to swap places, I am very happy. I could do it now.”

And he would have done, because the truth is, Johnson had got the better of him. He ought to have swapped places with Ian Blackford too - because remarkably, given the UK Government’s embarrassing u-turn on free school meals, it was the SNP’s Westminster leader who made the only reference to Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.

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On the day the English Premier League returned, PMQs was an open goal for Labour, but Starmer skied it over the bar.

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