No sign of Dominic Raab or Gavin Williamson on the front bench at PMQs. Excitable spirits wondered whether the Foreign Secretary and Education Secretary had already been consigned for reeducation at some dreaded Johnsonian college, where they would be prepared for vital roles in the supply chain, perhaps driving heavy goods vehicles or getting in the harvest.
Sir Keir Starmer began by posing an unanswerable question:
“How many extra hours a week would a single parent working full time on the minimum wage have to work to get back the £20 a week the Prime Minister plans to take away from them in his Universal Credit cuts?”
When we call this question “unanswerable”, we mean Boris Johnson could not answer it without contradicting Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who on Monday said “about two hours”, which nobody thought was right.
One could not help noticing Coffey was absent. Might she too be undergoing reeducation?
Johnson was not going to fall into the trap prepared for him by the Leader of the Opposition. “It is absurd,” he objected. “Every single recipient of Universal Credit would lose their benefits under Labour because they want to abolish Universal Credit, Mr Speaker.”
“The Prime Minister didn’t answer the question,” Sir Keir remarked.
“Wages are rising,” Johnson said, and sketched a picture of a happy land of high wages and high skills, which Labour would wreck by allowing unrestricted immigration.
Sir Keir drew a picture of an unhappy land where it would take “over nine hours a week just to get the money back”. How could anyone with children work an extra day a week just to replace the lost income?
Especially, he added, as the Government is also putting up taxes.
Johnson lamented that “the party of Nye Bevan” could fall so low as to vote against measures which would fix the NHS.
Sir Keir tried to put pressure on the Prime Minister by getting his benches to chant “up…up…up” as he mentioned tax rises.
“I see the panto season has come early,” Johnson retorted, and mocked Sir Keir for having written a 14,000 word essay about the future of socialism.
Sir Roger Gale (Con, North Thanet) brought bad news:
“On ‘Back British Farming’ day we’re in harvest time but, Mr Speaker, all is not safely gathered in.
“In three weeks, Thanet Earth in my constituency, the largest glasshouse company in the country growing tomatoes, has had to trash £320,000 worth of produce because of no pickers and no drivers.
“Because of the lack of labour force, the crops are rotting in our fields and on our trees.”
He urged the Prime Minister to “introduce immediately” a Covid Recovery Visa so this year’s crops are not lost.
Johnson declined to do so. He said the Government was “taking steps”, and the Seasonal Agricultural Scheme would be used to ensure that British farms get the workers they need.
And off he went to reshuffle his ministerial team: a measure which however comprehensive it is, might well not produce enough workers to get in the lost crops.