Artillery Row Portcullis Sketch

An endangered species

The Conservatives are losing their grip on power

Rishi Sunak is only just approaching his hundredth day in office and already he’s starting to feel like a pitiful figure. 

At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Keir Starmer opened with a joke about Sunak having “briefly emerged from his hibernation” at the weekend to sack Nadhim Zahawi. The new prime minister is bringing out a previously unseen cruel streak in the Labour leader.

Starmer mocked Sunak’s claim that he’d only just discovered what sort of chap Zahawi is. Anybody who picked up a newspaper had known there was something fishy about the tax situation, he said. “Is the prime minister saying that his officials hid this information from him, or was he just too incurious to ask any questions?” The response – “no issues were raised with me at the time of his appointment” – can’t even have sounded good in rehearsal. 

But when the Labour leader linked Zahawi to embattled Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, who is accused to bullying his officials, Sunak found a little fire. What, the prime minister asked, about Labour MP Rosie Duffield’s recent claim that her party had done nothing to support her when male colleagues heckled her over trans rights? 

This is a sticky area for Starmer, who acts as if he wishes the whole row would just go away. “If he cannot be trusted to stand up for the women in his party, he cannot be trusted to stand up for Britain,” jabbed Sunak, looking fairly punchy, at least for him.

After PMQs, the Policing Minister, Chris Philp, was summoned to discuss the police response to Hillsborough. It’s now thirty-four years since the disaster. For most of that time, the essential facts have been clear. And yet, somehow, the families’ battle for basic justice is still ongoing, each step seemingly taking years, delayed by ongoing court cases. 

Police chiefs have this week — no rush lads, take your time —agreed that in future they should be open and honest. It’s not that this isn’t welcome but, like their recent promise to urgently check how many of their officers are suspected sex offenders, it’s a statement that raises as many questions as it answers. 

Philp is well-suited to being Policing Minister, in the sense that it’s not difficult to imagine him arresting you for looking at him funny or faking your signature on a confession. However, he lacks the patience to listen to a lot of people telling him he ought to be doing his job properly. As MP after MP on both sides of the chamber (including some who’d been present at the disaster) castigated the government for still dragging its heels, he grew increasingly tetchy.

He got a brisk telling off from Theresa May who, whatever her other faults, is one of the politicians who used their power to move things forward on Hillsborough. “I do not think saying vaguely that the government’s response will be available this spring is good enough,” she said. “They must now publish it.”

Meanwhile, if Sunak is determined to show us that he is a fighter he is still struggling to escape the shadow and the legacy of his problematic predecessor. Boris Johnson has given an interview to Nadine Dorries’s new show on Talk TV, one of the proliferation of channels that has launched to say the unsayable, or in this case allow the rest of us to watch the unwatchable. 

a more accurate title would be An Audience with Boris Johnson

The show is titled Friday Night With Nadine, an invitation to which the only reasonable response is that we are sadly otherwise engaged washing our hair. On the basis of what has so far been released, a more accurate title would be An Audience with Boris Johnson.  In the two-and-a half minute clip, Dorries uttered 13 words, of which three are “of course” and “yeah” as Johnson explained that no reasonable person thinks he attended any lockdown parties. The final 10 are claiming that you didn’t hear much about the relationship between Brexit and the Covid vaccine, a statement that could only be explained by her having spent 2021 in a coma. 

“Anybody who thinks I was knowingly going to parties that were breaking lockdown rules in Number 10, and then knowingly covering up parties that were illicit, that other people were going to, that’s all strictly for the birds,” Johnson monologued at her. “And if anybody thinks like that, they’re out of their mind.” I’m indebted to Joe Twyman of DeltaPoll for telling me that last year 73 per cent of the population was, according to the former prime minister’s definition, clinically insane.  

Not Dorries, though. She nodded understandingly. “We all thought that what we were doing was within the rules,” Johnson explained. Who can forget those nightly press conferences with their pithy slogan: “Stay Home, Protect The NHS, Shag A Colleague On A Child’s Swing”.

Through all this, Dorries sat silent. What was there to challenge? What possible question could anyone raise about this completely reasonable account of events? Was a producer whispering in her earpiece that now might be the moment to mention that 10 Downing Street turns out to have beaten all records for lockdown criminality? Probably not. This isn’t that kind of show.

But Dorries has, however unintentionally, performed a journalistic service. Last summer we were treated to an entire afternoon of Johnson telling us how terribly appalled he had been to find out how he and his staff had occupied themselves during lockdown. We’re due another such show in Parliament shortly, when he defends himself against that suggestion that he might not have been completely straightforward about all this. 

What we got here was the unadulterated truth: he can’t understand why everyone got so upset about all this. We’re the mad ones, not him. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover