TODAY was the opposition’s day in Parliament when the government conceded control over the agenda.
It usually means set-piece battles in which Labour tries out its best lines and the government rehearses its set-piece defences. A clear victory is rare but today the government was kicked off the pitch.
Light relief was provided by Sammy Wilson from Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Wilson is generally regarded as providing proof that God has a sense of humour.
He mused that “only time will tell” whether the forecasts given by the government’s science advisers earlier this week “have any credibility or whether they are exaggerated.”
From a political formation many of whose adherents take the Bible as evidence that the earth is but a few thousand years old it might appear that contesting scientific opinion is a risky enterprise, but Sammy Wilson is already famous for his view that that man-made climate change is a “myth based on dodgy science.” And with a doctrinal certainty grounded in Biblical authority he calls climate-change science “a hysterical pseudo-religion.”
The significant feature of Johnson’s comical exchange with Wilson is that the Prime Minister generously suggested that the Irishman made “a powerful point of scepticism about the medical forecasts.”
Such studied ambiguity on the issue of how to strike a balance between measures necessary to protect public health or ensure the rate of capital accumulation proceeds unimpeded suggests that the premier appears as indifferent to scientific opinion as the DUP.
The substantive issues before MPs were firstly the government’s manifestly discriminatory regional approach to funding lockdown measures and secondly the question of free school meals.
On the first, clear lines of difference now exist between Labour and the government. Keir Starmer hit the right note when he argued that a national framework for financial support to councils was needed rather than “grubby, take-it-or-leave-it deals.”
A measure of how much trouble the government faces is that Tory MPs in Northern seats are willing to align themselves with their Labour council leaders.
The government’s approach is so clearly discriminatory and politically partisan that it could add credibility to the idea that a North-South divide might displace class as the central distinction in politics.
But the Tory bid to penalise the capital with higher council taxes, an expanded congestion charge zone and a hike in Tube and bus fares as a condition for Covid-19 aid puts an end to that notion.
And just to emphasise its anti-working class approach the government threatened a hit on London Transport workers’ pensions.
RMT’s Mick Cash straight away put ministers on notice: “Any attempt to hack away at our members’ pension rights will be met by an all-out campaign of political and industrial resistance.”
Labour’s motion on school meals was deceptively simple. It called on the government to continue directly funding provision of free school meals over the school holidays until Easter 2021 “to prevent over a million children going hungry during this crisis.”
And at the opening whistle two ultra-reactionary Tory MPs, Steve Baker and Ben Bradley, rubbished comments by England and Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford whose efforts for hungry kids have earned him an MBE and a massive following.
Bradley lapsed immediately into Tory backwoodsman mode, tweeting: “Extending free school meals to school holidays passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the state. It increases dependency.”
Rashford came back immediately: “The economy already pays a high price for child hunger. If children were fed properly you would increase educational attainment and boost life chances. @KelloggsUKI calculated we would spend at least £5.2M a year on lost teaching hours as teachers are caring for hungry kids.”
Classy on the pitch — class politics off it.