UK Covid live news: Starmer questions Johnson about confusing travel advice amid Indian variant concerns | Politics

This was the first PMQs since the elections less than two weeks ago that saw Labour suffer a wretched defeat in Hartlepool, and less awful but still very poor results in the English council elections. Boris Johnson’s own opinion poll ratings continue to rise, and Sir Keir Starmer’s are sinking. In the circumstances Johnson might have expected that today he would be enjoying a victory lap. Starmer did not pull off a clear win, but he more than held his own and given the wider dynamics in play, that must count as something of a result.

Starmer started with a gentle opener (‘Does the PM agree that new variants are the biggest threat to re-opening?’ Of course, everyone does) and from there he proceeded to precise, incriminating questions that Johnson could not or would not answer. Why is government making it easier to visit amber list countries? How many people are arriving from them every day? It was the sort of interrogation that Starmer does best, and Johnson was on the defensive throughout. You could tell he was in difficulty because by answer three he was resorting to the ‘it’s your job to support the government’ line – a poor argument to deploy against someone who’s actual job title is leader of the opposition.

Johnson did, though, land one effective line as he fought back, when he made a jibe about Starmer defending government policy “using what authority he possesses”. It was a subtle dig but it worked because authority is about the most valuable currency available to an opposition leader and Starmer’s has been shrinking in recent weeks. His own MPs used to see him as a future prime minister, but since the May elections an increasing number have their doubts. That might be the most important consequence from 6 May, and Johnson was rubbing it in.

It is also possible that Johnson might be closer to where public opinion really is on border controls than some of the opinion polling (which generally shows strong public support for tighter rules) implies. Labour’s position may be more logical than the government’s, but it is close to shutting the door on all holidays abroad this summer.

This was one of those PMQs where the exchanges with Starmer were less important than some of the other things Johnson had to say. Johnson started with what he framed as an announcement:

We’ve looked at the data again this morning and I can tell the house we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant.

Given that the scientists have until now been saying there is no evidence that the vaccines are less effective against the Indian variant, and little evidence that they are less effective against the South African one (which is only present in the UK in small numbers anyway), this did not sound that new, but perhaps Matt Hancock will flesh it out at the press conference this evening.

But on trade with Australia, Johnson was more definitive. This is what he told Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, when he asked if the proposed trade deal with Australia would contain specific measures to protect British farmers from competition. Johnson said:

I don’t think that [Blackford] does justice to crofters, to farmers across the country and in Scotland as well because I think he grossly underestimates their ability to do great things with our free trade deals, to export Scottish beef around the world. Why doesn’t he believe in what the people of Scotland can do?

Why is he so frightened of free trade? I think there’s a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the UK and he should seize it and be proud of it …

[Blackford] is grossly underestimating the ability of the people of this country, the agricultural communities of this country, the farming industry to make the most of free trade. This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade on exporting around the world.

Yesterday the Financial Times (paywall) said in a report that the cabinet was divided over whether or not the deal should offer tariff-free access to the UK market for Australian farmers (which would pose a threat to British agriculture) and that ministers did not know where Johnson stood. This afternoon it seems clearer; he sounded as if he has decided to side with Liz Truss and not George Eustice.

UPDATE: In the Times today (paywall) Oliver Wright said Johnson had decided “to offer Australia tariff-free access to British food markets despite warnings that it could put farmers out of business” – ie, to back Truss, not Eustice. The story is based on a quote from a “source” who told Wright: “In principle the prime minister believes that we should be offering the same terms to Australia as we offer to the EU.”

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