Standing behind the Speaker’s chair, Boris Johnson got ready to take his place. He was surrounded by a small entourage, attempting to tidy him up. Joy Morrissey, one of his parliamentary aides, was brushing down his lapels. For a moment it seemed she might spit on a hanky and wipe his face. The prime minister looked like he was thoroughly enjoying it all.
And yet, somehow, by the time he got to his spot, he was unkempt again, tie askew, hair like a haystack in a gale. Inconsistent on so many other points, Johnson remains utterly committed to looking like he got dressed in a hurry, possibly on a hotel fire escape.
Asked to list his engagements for the day, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland rose to his feet, placed his folder on the dispatch box and scratched his arse. We really are tremendously lucky to have him.
Keir Starmer had a long-winded question about windfall taxes. Was Johnson for them, against them or sitting on the fence, he asked. The First Lord of the Treasury stood to reply and reached once again to give his rump a quick scrape. If he had been hoping to find the answer back there, he failed, beginning his reply to a question about energy prices by saying that the Labour leader had “struggled to define what a woman was.” Once again, we were forced to wonder whether the Oxford Union debating skills of which we hear so much are really all that.
“This government is not in principle in favour of higher taxation,” Johnson went on. Labour MPs shouted back that it very much was in practice. “Labour put up taxes.” The opposition front bench all pointed back at him.
Starmer accused ministers of shifting position on a daily basis. Johnson rose again, and once again his left hand went back to his bottom. Maybe he had a rash? Surely Morrissey had a pot of Sudocrem in her bag?
Behind him Morrissey looked as proud as any mother on the first day of school
There was definitely a sense that the prime minister’s mind wasn’t on the job. His answer on windfall taxes this time roamed, reasonably enough, to the reasons for higher energy prices, which include the war in Ukraine, before wandering off to suggest that Labour wanted to end sanctions against Russia. A windfall tax today, he seemed to be saying, and tomorrow the Russians would be marching up the King’s Road. In even greater numbers than they already do, and not just to visit Smythson. “Giving in, not sticking the course, would ultimately be the far greater economic risk,” he told Labour, who didn’t look so much outraged as baffled.
Starmer listed the people in favour of a windfall tax, and then said the only person against one was Jacob Rees-Mogg, “when he’s not sticking notes on people’s desks like some overgrown prefect.” That got a decent laugh, including from Rees-Mogg, though it’s possible he was laughing at the Labour leader’s faux pas: it goes without saying that prefects at Eton won’t be called prefects. They’ll be scrumtrims until Michaelmas and upper-weazles after that, or something (if anyone knows, they should feel free to write to someone who cares).
The Labour leader moved on, to the case of a man skipping meals and turning off the heating so that he can afford the electricity to run his dialysis machine. MPs went silent for that, while the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, whispered urgently down the front bench to Johnson. “Millions of our disabled, elderly and vulnerable neighbours are at the sharp end of this crisis,” Starmer said. “They simply cannot afford to live with dignity.”
That took the wind out of the prime minister’s sails for a moment. He expressed his sympathy and asked for details. He prepared to move to a fresh rhetorical point and, unbidden, his arm snaked round behind his back and stayed there for what the third umpire later declared to be a good sixteen seconds. Perhaps he wasn’t scratching. Perhaps holding-the-back-of-your-trousers is the new putting-your-thumb-in-your-lapel. It doesn’t have quite the same gravitas.
Whatever he’s doing back there, it does seem to help. Within moments he was galloping from topic to topic: NHS, strong economy, low unemployment, infrastructure, skills, technology, before resting finally at the Queen opening London’s Crossrail link. “Who was the Mayor of London when Crossrail was first starting to be built?” he asked. “And who was the prime minister who completed it?” He seemed quite pleased with this, even if the boast was only true because the project ran four years late.
Behind him Morrissey looked as proud as any mother on the first day of school. Getting him presentable is a work in progress. Clean lapels this week, tie straightened next week, hands out of trousers before the end of the year. As Johnson put it: “We get the big things done.”
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