Boris Johnson has faced demands to make another U-turn and extend the furlough scheme beyond October to prevent Margaret Thatcher-style unemployment numbers.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted the Prime Minister must help sectors of the economy which “desperately” need the furlough scheme as they cannot return to normal during the Covid-19 pandemic.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford added Mr Johnson has already made eight U-turns this year, and a ninth must follow to protect jobs.
But the Prime Minister insisted “indefinite furlough” is not the answer to help the economy through the pandemic and defended the Government’s policies after Labour’s Kate Osborne (Jarrow) accused him of talking “waffle” in response to appeals for a further extension.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Blackford said: “Yesterday the Prime Minister told his Cabinet, ‘I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change’.
“It was surprisingly honest from the Prime Minister to admit his Government is all at sea, a UK Government now defined by eight U-turns in eight months.
“But if the Prime Minister is true to his word, then surely he must see sense and change tack for a ninth time.
“With the clock ticking for struggling businesses and workers, will the Prime Minister commit today to extend the job retention scheme beyond October?
“Or is his Government making the political choice to accept levels of unemployment last seen under Thatcher in the early 1980s?”
Mr Johnson responded: “Members opposite of all parties seem to want to extend the furlough scheme which has already cost this country £40 billion … supported 11 million people, but after all keeps them in suspended animation and prevents them from going to work.
“What we want to do is get people back to work and that’s why I hope he (Mr Blackford) will instead support our Kickstarter scheme to get young people into jobs and support them in those jobs.
“How much better is that than languishing out of work?”
Labour’s Sir Keir earlier said: “The jobs of millions of people are at risk, the longer he delays, the more they’re at risk, so will he act, finally get this decision right and commit to extend the furlough for those sectors and those workers that desperately need it?”
Mr Johnson later told Ms Osborne: “There will always be those who argue for an infinite extension of the furlough scheme and who want to keep people off work, unemployed, being paid very substantial sums for a very long time. I don’t think that’s the right thing.
“I think the best way forward for our country is to get people as far as we possibly can back into work.”
Mr Johnson highlighted other schemes to support the economy, adding: “We will continue to put our arms round the entire people to keep them going throughout the crisis, but indefinite furlough is just not the answer.”
Mr Johnson began Prime Minister’s Questions by sidestepping calls to reveal when he knew there was a problem with the exam algorithm for grades in England.
Sir Keir addressed the exams “fiasco” over the summer, adding: “We learned yesterday the Education Secretary knew well in advance that there was a problem with the algorithm.
“So a straight answer to a straight question please Prime Minister: When did the Prime Minister first know that there was a problem with the algorithm?”
Mr Johnson highlighted the stress pupils and parents have undergone, before noting that exams could not take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He went on: “As a result of what we learned about the tests, the results that had come in, we did institute a change, we did act.
“The students, the pupils of this country now do have their grades and I really ask (Sir Keir) whether he will join me in congratulating those pupils on their hard work and whether he agrees with me that they deserve the grades they’ve got.”
Sir Keir went on to accuse Mr Johnson of being “just tin eared and making it up as he goes along”.
He cited one Tory MP saying: “It’s mess after mess, his own MPs, U-turn after U-turn, it’s a fundamental issue of competence, God knows what’s going on, there’s no grip. His own MPs are right aren’t they?”
Responding, Mr Johnson said: “This is a leader of the Opposition who backed remaining in the EU and now is totally silent on the subject, now has performed a U-turn. He backed – in fact he still does Mr Speaker – this is a leader of the Opposition who supported an IRA-condoning politician who wanted to get out of Nato and now says absolutely nothing. This is a leader of the Opposition who sat on the front bench whilst there was anti-Semitism … ”
Mr Johnson’s comments were cut off by Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle who called for order.