All the world’s a stage

For Boris there’s no difficulty transitioning from panel shows to PMQs

People used to ask how Boris Johnson would cope with the transition from comedy panel show guest to national politician. The answer, it turns out, is to treat national politics like a panel show.

Like Mornington Crescent, the game played on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, the rules of Prime Minister’s Questions are obscure, and possibly imaginary. The objective, which Johnson achieves almost every week, seems to be to finish up talking about the one thing the government is doing well: vaccination. Ask him about his wallpaper, or schools he’ll talk about vaccination.

Lindsay Hoyle, in the Humphrey Littleton role (Jack Dee for younger readers), tries to prevent this by intervening when the prime minister has deviated too far from the subject. That is sadly the only way in which the game resembles Just A Minute – repetition is never punished in Parliament.

For Johnson, the whole thing is a performance. When Keir Starmer asks a question, the prime minister squints at the Labour leader as though he were a great distance away, and shrouded in mist. The implication seems to be that any point the leader of the opposition might want to make is so bafflingly obscure that it is pointless even trying to address it.

Starmer has not been having a good time of things lately. He seems to feel that the game ought to have rules, that actions should have consequences. But Johnson has never accepted such things, and isn’t about to start now.

The Labour leader asked about rape prosecutions. Why were they so low, with less than 2 percent of complaints leading to a prosecution? This was, interestingly, in line with Dominic Cummings’s advice on Monday, that Starmer should just keep asking Johnson about violent crime.

Johnson gets quite snippy when asked questions he doesn’t like. The problem was a complicated one, he said, before going to one of his favourite refrains, that Labour made things worse by voting against his recent crime bill.

This is, politely, rubbish: the government has a majority of 80 in the House of Commons, and the bill is proceeding on its way unencumbered by anything the opposition can do. But there is a strange neediness to the prime minister. It is rare for him to stand at the despatch box without complaining that Labour MPs aren’t voting for his policies.

For his final question, Starmer asked Johnson if he would apologise to rape victims. This presented Johnson with a dilemma: was there a way to get from such an apology to the point he really wanted to make, that vaccinations were going very well?

From rape to vaccines within 90 words!

Another man might not have made the attempt. They might have decided that rape was quite a serious subject, that the situation was a mess, and that they should apologise and move on. Not Johnson. He had a particularly good joke written down in front of him, and there was no way he was going to miss it out.

So he began with the apology. “To all the victims of rape and sexual violence, all the victims and survivors,” he said, “of course I say sorry for the trauma that they have been through, the frustration that they go through because of the inadequacies of the criminal justice system.”

He went on, “We are fixing that.” He described the money spent to clear the courts backlog. And then he saw the route to winning that week’s game. The fastest way to deal with that backlog, he said, was “to get our country moving again”. How was the government doing that? Why, with “the fastest vaccination roll-out anywhere in Europe”.

Mornington Crescent! He had done it again! But could he win the bonus round, by making a joke about Labour? He could! He could! “We are getting on with the job,” he said. “They jabber, we jab!” Behind him, Conservative MPs were delighted with the delicious quip. “They dither, we deliver,” he was on a roll. “They vacillate and we vaccinate!”

He sat down to Tory cheers. Clever old Boris Johnson had won the game again. From rape to vaccines within 90 words! A heartfelt apology to victims of sexual assault and, less than 45 seconds later, a little wordplay, to cheer them up. Cheer up, love, it’s only a game.

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