Unless Matt Hancock mends his ways he will be “run ragged” by the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who will summon him to the House every day to answer an Urgent Question.
The Health Secretary made a statement in the House on Tuesday, and failed to tell MPs he was about to introduce a six-person limit on gatherings.
Hoyle was incandescent with rage: “It was all over Twitter. Somebody had decided to tell the media and not this House.”
At the end of PMQs, Sir Desmond Swayne had asked the Speaker, on a point of order: “What remedy is there for those of us who enthusiastically support the Prime Minister but nevertheless want to restrain the Government’s ability to govern by order without debate?”
Boris Johnson was sitting on the Treasury bench, and smiled and nodded gently as the Speaker exploded with fury at the absent Hancock. The Prime Minister’s demeanour was that of a schoolboy who finds it amusing that one of his chums is being given six of the best.
Johnson might have done better to look grave. For one of the problems from which he himself suffers just now is an inability to take the House into his confidence, and thereby carry MPs with him.
He naturally expected Sir Keir Starmer would challenge him on the shocking admission the day before by Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, when asked about the Internal Market Bill: “Yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
I suppose one might say Lewis was taking the House into his confidence, but not in such a way as to carry MPs with him.
The Prime Minister seized the chance before facing Starmer to make a bald statement: “We expect everybody in this country to obey the law.”
Starmer then ducked the argument about the rule of law. This was an odd decision, for it is a necessary argument. However preposterous the PM’s attempts to extricate himself from the appalling statement made by Lewis might have been, we wanted to know what they were.
This is something the Commons can do extremely well: expose ministers when they are talking nonsense.
The Leader of the Opposition instead opened with the story of a woman in London who yesterday needed a Covid test for her sick child, and was told she could get one in Telford or Inverness.
As Starmer observed, “this is frankly ridiculous”. One might have expected Johnson, in his reply, to admit that something or other has gone wrong with the testing system.
He instead started to sound like the Communist Party boss of a tractor factory in Minsk: the NHS has performed 17.6 million tests, “more than any other country in Europe”.
The Prime Minister proceeded to accuse Starmer of attempting “to undermine confidence” in the NHS’s testing system.
Starmer had not done that. He had merely observed that the tests are not always reaching those who need them most.
“This is a Government that puts its arms round the people of this country,” Johnson said at a later stage of PMQs.
Again, this sounded like a strange, faintly totalitarian, even creepy remark for a Tory Prime Minister to be making. We don’t want the Government to put its arms round us. We just want it to do various things reasonably well.