Boris Johnson has suggested the controversy over Matt Hancock breaking social distancing rules and subsequently resigning as health secretary is a “Westminster bubble” matter.
The prime minister faced repeated questions about the scandal, which was sparked when leaked CCTV footage showed Mr Hancock kissing his aide in breach of COVID-19 rules, from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs.
Sir Keir said the furore was evidence of “one rule for them and another rule for everybody else” and accused Mr Johnson of trying to “sweep this under the carpet”.
He raised the case of five-year-old Ollie Bibby, who died of leukaemia on 5 May, the day before the pictures of Mr Hancock were taken, and told MPs how only one person was able to be at his bedside when he passed away.
Sir Keir said it was one of many examples of people who have “made huge and difficult sacrifices” to follow the rules during the pandemic.
In response, the PM said: “We all share the grief and the pain…(of) millions of people up and down the country who have endured the privations that this country has been through in order to get the coronavirus pandemic under control and that is why we had a change of health secretary the day after the story appeared.”
He added: “Instead of focusing on stuff going on within the Westminster bubble we are focusing on rolling out that vaccine.”
“Westminster bubble” is a term often used to describe events within politics that have little impact or garner little interest beyond Westminster.
The use of the phrase drew a furious response from Sir Keir, who said the PM’s comment was not “appropriate”.
“Before Prime Minister’s Questions this morning I spoke to Ollie’s mum about the awful circumstances she and her family have been through,” he said.
“She told me prime minister that every day she watched the press conferences and she hung onto every word that government ministers said so she would know what her family could and couldn’t do, and then they followed the rules. This is not the Westminster bubble.
“She told me that for her and her family this case isn’t closed and she speaks for millions of people.”
It was the first time the pair have clashed since the former health secretary resigned at the weekend.
Mr Hancock’s departure on Saturday came the day after Downing Street said Mr Johnson had accepted his apology and considered the matter “closed”.
The PM seemingly tried to claim he in fact sacked Mr Hancock in comments during an interview on Monday, before Number 10 clarified that was not the case.
This confusion was something that was seized upon by Sir Keir in the Commons.
Asked by the Labour leader why he had not sacked Mr Hancock, Mr Johnson said: “I read the story in common with you and everyone else on Friday and we had a new health secretary in place by Saturday, which I think that, given that we have a pandemic, I think to move from one health secretary to the next with that speed was fast.”