With Keir Starmer self-isolating after catching coronavirus for the second time in three months, Boris Johnson faced the sparkier figure of Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner at the first prime minister’s questions of the New Year. Johnson wanted to keep the focus on coronavirus, celebrating the success of the booster vaccination rollout and effectively ruling out further restrictions.
It was a message designed to restore his standing among Conservative backbenchers, half of whom voted against the modest restrictions he introduced in response to the Omicron variant. It was enough to pacify them for now, although some made clear that they expected the prime minister to remove the current measures by the end of this month.
Rayner ignored Johnson’s attempt to paint Labour as the party of lockdown, turning her attention to the more fertile ground of Britain’s looming cost of living crisis. Energy prices are set to soar when a price cap comes up for renewal in April, the same month that sees a rise in National Insurance and a freeze on income tax bands.
“In October the prime minister said that fears about inflation were unfounded but working people across the country are starting the new year facing rising bills and ballooning prices. So how did he get it so wrong?” she said.
Johnson could have told the truth but he chose the more familiar option.
“Of course I said no such thing, because inflation is always something that we have to be careful about,” he said.
It took a couple of minutes for his quote from a Sky News interview in October to surface: “People have been worried about inflation for a very long time, and those fears have been unfounded.”
Rayner had another quote to hand, this time from Johnson writing in the Sun during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign when he said that leaving the EU would allow Britain to cut VAT on energy bills. She said that Labour, along with a growing number of Conservative MPs, wants him to do just that.
“The prime minister pretends that it is not his fault. He blames the global forces. He blames the markets,” she said.
“The prime minister has made political choices that have led us to this place.”
Johnson blustered on about the help his government had given to poor households before making a hand-brake turn into talking about the Omicron variant. Omicron is moving through Britain so fast that it will soon be gone but Johnson, Rayner and every other MP at Westminster know that the cost of living crisis is just beginning.