Nick Brown et al. sitting at a table © Provided by The Independent

Keir Starmer offered to take Boris Johnson's place at prime minister's questions in the Commons, as the PM repeatedly sought to dodge a grilling about his handling of coronavirus by demanding answers from the leader of the opposition.

The Labour leader accused Mr Johnson of failing to protect local council finances and prevent child poverty rising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But - despite the convention that the weekly half-hour session is reserved for questions to the prime minister - the PM responded by repeatedly pressing Starmer to say whether he believes it is safe for children to go back to school.

In testy exchanges in the Commons chamber, Starmer confronted the PM with a letter to communities secretary Robert Jenrick from the Conservative leader of Lancshire County Council Geoff Driver, who said the authority was "deeply disappointed" with the additional funding it has received from central government to cope with the crisis. He accused Johnson of being "slow to act" over shortfalls in funding which the Tory-led Local Government Association have put at £10 billion this year.


And he pointed to last week's report from the Government’s Social Mobility Commission which found that there are now 600,000 more children living in relative poverty than in 2012 and that child poverty rates are projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022.

Mr Johnson responded by claiming that both absolute and relative poverty had in fact declined under his government, and that 400,000 fewer families were living in poverty than in 2010, earning the retort from Starmer that he clearly "hasn't the first idea" what the Commission's report had said.

Ducking Starmer’s demand to say whether he believed further increases in child poverty would be an “intolerable” outcome of the pandemic, Johnson asked the Labour leader instead if he would “encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now because their schools are safe”.

The Labour leader said that the government was "falling short" on support for councils which are working "flat-out" in the pandemic delivering food and other supplies, obtaining protective equipment and protecting the homeless.

Council leaders face a choice between “cutting core services or facing bankruptcy”, said Starmer, who told the PM: “Either outcome will harm communities and mean local services can’t reopen.

“That will drive up poverty, something the Prime Minister says he doesn’t intend to do. Local councils have done everything asked of them in this crisis, the Government hasn’t. Will the prime minister take responsibility and actually do something?”

Mr Johnson pointed to the £3.2bn previously announced to support councils during the outbreak, but again tried to turn the debate back onto Starmer’s position on school reopening.

To cheers and laughter from the Labour benches, Starmer addressed Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle: “This is turning into opposition questions.

“If the prime minister wants to swap places, I’m very happy to do it, to do it now.”

And at one point, Hoyle himself appeared to get muddled about who was on which side of the despatch box, sparking hilarity among MPs by calling Starmer to speak with the words "Prime Minister".

In all, Mr Johnson asked four times for the Labour leader's opinion on whether it was safe for children to return to schools, saying that "a great ox has stood on his tongue" in the shape of unions who oppose full reopening.

Starmer replied: "Mr Speaker, every week the prime minister seems to complain that I ask him questions at prime minister's questions. If he wants to swap places, so be it."

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