Spare a thought for Boris Johnson. On 16 September, he had to face his worst nightmare across the dispatch box at Prime Minister’s questions (PMQs): a bona fide working-class woman. He was obliged to be careful and remain polite, because people in the former “Red Wall” seats might be watching to see how he treated one of their own.
Pregnant and a drop-out at 16, Angela Rayner once fell into the category that Johnson described in one of his nastier Spectator columns as “outrageous” for placing a tax burden on married couples so that people (like Angela) could “procreate independently of men”. He further went on to disparage single mums by claiming their children were “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”.
When challenged on these comments by an indignant single mother during the 2019 general election campaign, he tried to brush them off using the passage of years as an excuse. The encounter with that single mother left an uncomfortable doubt: did Johnson really mean it, or was he just playing to the gallery of ultra-reactionary conservatism? Ms Rayner expressed her disgust at the time:
“I might be the shadow education secretary, but inside I’m that 16-year-old that didn’t think I was worth anything. And people like him make women who are already vulnerable feel that they’re the problem. They’re not the problem.
Luckily for me, I had a Sure Start centre and I had adult education I could go back into. I had a council house waiting for me. All of those things have been dismantled now.”
[Sure Start children’s centres were set up under the previous Labour government in 1998, but despite positive outcomes, a 2019 report revealed they’ve seen their funding cut by 62% since 2010 under the Conservatives.]
Before becoming the MP for Ashton-Under-Lyne in 2015, Ms Rayner worked in the Social Care Sector. Oh, happy days for Johnson! That just happens to be the sector where his failings scream the loudest. There have been almost 30,000 excess deaths in care homes since the start of the pandemic, roughly 20,000 of them attributable to COVID-19. Not exactly world-beating or world-leading, whichever Mr Johnson wants to be today.
Of course, Johnson was all at sea when challenged by Ms Rayner to tell the House the hourly rate of a care worker – so much so, he could barely string a sentence together. He whirred and whirred and whirred like a dead battery in a car that won’t start. When he did finally get himself into gear, he could only spout fumes of gibberish that didn’t come within a hundred miles of an answer to the original question.
“Er, well, Mr Speaker… I congratulate… er… the er… good… right— the honourable lady on her elevation…”
What did the PM mean by “elevation”? Was he inferring that it was a privilege to be allowed to face him, the King of the World, across the dispatch box? Or was he merely 5 months out-of-date and congratulating her for having been elected as deputy leader of her party? Either could be possible with Johnson.
The hourly wage of a social care worker is a little over £8, by the way. The figure was tweeted by 24-year-old frontline care worker and Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome during PMQs. Ms Whittome has suffered terrible abuse in recent days after being fired by the care home she had rejoined to help out during the pandemic. She was accused of lying about the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Both the mainstream media, several Tory MPs (Alicia Kearns, Ben Bradley, Nadine Dorries, James Cleverly and Richard Holden), and one Tory peer (Zac Goldsmith) amplified the accusations and questioned her integrity, precipitating a social media pile-on. Ms Whittome was forced to engage a crack legal team to defend herself, but vindication came when the care home admitted that not only had it suffered a shortage of PPE, but it had even asked her to make an appeal video.
Ilford North MP Wes Streeting’s appeal to the Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle to call the offending Tory MPs and Lord to account fell on open ears, as Sir Lindsay had himself just been complaining about the COVID shambles the day before —in his case, testing. This was another focus of Ms Rayner’s questioning of the PM. “The Prime Minister has put his faith in Operation Moonshot, but, meanwhile, on planet Earth,” she said, “there were no NHS tests available for several high-infection areas, including for Tameside and Oldham in my own constituency.” Johnson blathered on about an “ambition” to increase testing to half a million per day. It’s one of Johnson’s favourite tactics when failures are pointed out —go bigger! Never mind the moon, let’s go to Mars. Ms Rayner brought him back down to earth by reminding him the daily figure at present is 62,000, which is causing severe problems.
Hundreds of people have come forward in the past few weeks to share their testing nightmares. Tory MP Caroline Nokes’s own experience is representative, having been told that the nearest testing centre to her home in Romsey, Hampshire, was Inverness in Scotland. Liberal Democrat MP Munira Wilson, who represents Twickenham in South-West London, has related how her constituents had discovered that if they put in an Aberdeenshire postcode, they had a better chance of being assigned to a testing centre in Twickenham! (We ran a story on a Devon mum’s experience whcih you can read here)
Perhaps there’s a mutant algorithm to blame. Something is clearly not right in the £10 billion Serco & Sitel test-track-trace (TTT) operation, badged as NHS and run by the ubiquitous Baroness Dido Harding, wife of Weston-super-Mare MP John Penrose, whose ambition is to abolish Public Health England and privatise the NHS. (He’s half-way there.) Yet, as Ms Rayner pressed Johnson on the testing fiasco, the PM insisted the average journey to a test centre is only 6-7 miles and resorted to berating Labour for not acknowledging the effort that is being put in to TTT. This is another of his tired tactics to avoid inconvenient questions: pretend it’s aimed at undermining the morale of the workers, rather than at highlighting managerial incompetence. Ms Rayner was having none of it. “The next time a man with COVID symptoms drives from London to Durham,” she quipped, “it’ll probably be for the nearest COVID test.”
The PM offered no opposition to Ms Rayner’s call to do more to support pregnant women during the pandemic. Labour has focused on material support to new parents, and has been fighting since lockdown began to extend maternity pay by 3 months, while Conservatives have lately taken up the cause of strict social distancing rules causing birth trauma, as women have to give birth alone, an issue first highlighted by Emma Payne’s petition 6 months ago. Wouldn’t it be lovely if these two initiatives became cross-party?
Ms Rayner’s final question concerned social-distancing. The “rule of six”, which sounds more like a Sherlock Holmes novel than a government policy, is causing fresh pain for families. Being the mother of three children herself and having become a grandmother three years ago, Ms Rayner understands this. One of the ill-thought-out consequences of the new rule is that one or both grandparents, not to mention great grandparents, will be effectively banished from the lives of their grandchildren, where there are three or more children in the family. There will be more poignant scenes, like the Steph James’s photo of her son pressing his hand to a window-pane as his great-grandma kisses it, selected for the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hold Still” Exhibition documenting life in lockdown.
“This winter, we are staring down the barrel of a second wave, with no plan for the looming crisis,” Ms Rayner reminded the PM.
“People cannot say goodbye to their loved ones. Grandparents cannot see their grandchildren. Frontline staff cannot get the tests that they need. And what was the top priority for the COVID War Cabinet this weekend? Restoring grouse shooting.”
Johnson ended with one of his characteristic rants about the Labour party not giving him enough credit or support for all the marvellous things his government is allegedly doing. One wry commentator put the final score at Boris Johnson 3, Angela Rayner 8. What a relief for the PM that the weekly grilling was over. He’d already been comprehensively demolished in a session of chaos with Ed Miliband two days before. Now all he had to do was give a creditable account of himself at Liaison Committee that afternoon…