Just before lunchtime in the House of Commons on Wednesday, there was a small moment that matters little, but nonetheless lifted the heart. Before that, there was Prime Minister’s Questions, which as ever did the opposite.
Perhaps Number 10 will launch an inquiry
Boris Johnson had spent the best part of two hours on Tuesday telling us all how very deeply sorry he was, and it had taken a toll. It had been so bad that he’d had to go straight to a private meeting of Tory MPs to tell them that he wasn’t really sorry at all. By the time he got to the chamber the next day it was clear that contrition time was over. He’d given you all your sodding apology, and that was all you were going to get, at least until the next fine arrives.
Keir Starmer had other ideas. Why, he asked, had Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s doomed spokeswoman, had to resign? “I bitterly regret Allegra’s resignation,” Johnson said. “I think it was very sad.” He probably meant this. Johnson believes no one should ever resign over anything, or certainly not anyone on his side of the fence.
Anyway, he said, all this was in the past. “We had this conversation yesterday, and I explained why I bitterly regret receiving a fixed penalty notice,” he said, revealingly. So many regrets, so many of them bitter, though it always seems to be the consequences that he minds, rather than his actions.
“These are strange answers from a man who yesterday claimed to be making a humble apology,” Starmer noted. “Does the prime minister actually accept that he broke the law?”
“I have been absolutely clear that I humbly accept what the police have said,” Johnson said. His position, in other words, is that he completely respects the police’s utterly wrong decision.
What, Starmer asked next, about the prime minister’s off-camera remarks attacking that well-known communist frontman, the Archbishop of Canterbury? Johnson more or less confirmed them, saying he had been “slightly taken aback” to be criticised over his plan to ship refugees to Rwanda. This seems unlikely, given that the main appeal of the plan to the government is how much it upsets their opponents.
Starmer turned to the other subject of Johnson’s reported ire. “The Prime Minister also accused the BBC of not being critical enough of Putin,” he said, asking him if he would “have the guts” to put that to much-loved stars such as Clive Myrie and Lyse Doucet. Starmer’s signalling wasn’t subtle: the Labour leader was positioning himself as a man who stands up for archbishops and the ten o’clock news, unlike the prime minister and, though he didn’t say it, unlike his own predecessor.
‘I cannot rest until this posh glass ceiling is broken’
Johnson had looked baffled at the suggestion that he might have attacked our beloved Beeb. The very idea! “He must be out of his tiny mind,” he replied. “I said nothing of the kind. I have the highest admiration, as a journalist and a former journalist, for what journalists do.” (This at least was surely untrue: Johnson’s general approach to journalists is contempt, probably because he assumes they all do their job the way he used to do his.) The prime minister was overflowing with outrage. “What he says is completely without any foundation whatever,” he said.
The problem for Johnson is that the foundation for Starmer’s question was none other than his former employer, the Daily Telegraph, which led on the prime minister’s comments. How did it and other newspapers get the idea the prime minister had told his MPs this? We may never know. Perhaps Number 10 will launch an inquiry.
After this, PMQs fell into a pattern where Conservative MPs asked if they could have nice things in their constituencies, and opposition MPs asked about parties. It was hospitals versus cake. The closest Johnson got to a break was when Justin Madders asked about Cabinet tax arrangements. Rishi Sunak wasn’t there — perhaps he has to limit the number of days he spends in the UK — but Sajid Javid had the decency to look awkward.
A more edifying moment came afterwards. When PMQs finishes, there are usually a few points of order, in which MPs try to settle left-over scores. Sir David Evennett claimed that the Conservatives believe the BBC “does a great job”, which suggests he hasn’t spent much time talking to his colleagues. But while this was happening, Tory women began to cluster in the middle of their benches. There was suddenly a big huddle of them. Eventually the reason became clear. They were there to support Harriet Baldwin, who wanted to raise what must surely be Britain’s most niche injustice: the inability of women to inherit hereditary titles.
Obscure though this is, it has, as Baldwin pointed out, consequences: an eighth of the seats in the House of Lords are effectively reserved for men only. “If we cannot change inequality at the top of our society, we will never be able to change inequality for the whole of our society,” she said. “I cannot rest until this posh glass ceiling is broken.”
There are bigger issues out there, but it was heartening, somehow, after sessions of insincere apology and uneasy support, to watch MPs give wholehearted backing to a colleague raising a small issue about which she cared. Perhaps future countesses will thank her.
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