Operation Red Meat was in full swing. Within the hour, Boris Johnson would announce that Covid restrictions were being lifted — a move that would be more reassuring had it not been announced by such an obviously desperate man. Like a Sicilian on his daughter’s wedding day, the prime minister can’t refuse requests at the moment. If there’s something you want that the government can deliver in the next 24 to 48 hours, shoot him a text.
He opened prime minister’s questions by telling us that there would be a medal for those involved in the evacuation from Kabul. This national humiliation is probably the closest Johnson is going to get to a military victory, so he might as well make the most of it. We can only hope that Dominic Raab qualifies for a bit of tin, given that he actually did fight that action from a beach.
It was, in a way, classic Boris Johnson
There was a new face opposite Johnson on the Labour benches. Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South, had announced his defection from the Conservatives to Labour minutes earlier, and was now sitting behind Starmer. It was hard to know, behind his mask, how he felt about this. Some of his recent colleagues were shouting at him that he should resign his seat and force a by-election, although it’s hard to imagine the Tories want to fight one of those at the moment. It was a symbolic moment: the Red Wall MPs so personally associated with the prime minister’s electoral appeal were giving up on him.
Everywhere you looked in Parliament on Wednesday, you saw Tory MPs huddled in deep conversation, showing each other their phones. No one knows when the number of letters to Sir Graham Brady will reach the magic threshold, but Johnson seems finished.
That much was clear from the way Conservatives responded to his Covid announcement. They weren’t hostile, exactly, just nonplussed. True, when Johnson announced facemasks were no longer mandatory, Desmond Swayne cheered like a man watching the 100-1 outsider he’d backed win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but the general response was perfunctory approval, rather than a victory rally.
Wendy Chamberlain, a Lib Dem, opened PMQs by asking about parties. How would Johnson handle it? Last week he grovelled. On Tuesday he had been beaten to a pulp by Sky News. Now we discovered that we had reached the prime minister’s contrition limit. The smirk was back. “I apologise sincerely for any misjudgements that were made,” he began, with a sly glance towards the Speaker’s chair, “wait for the inquiry next week.”
This would be his answer throughout. He would use it repeatedly, for Keir Starmer and the SNP. What does he imagine Sue Grey is going to say that will save him? Is she going to reveal that he’s spent the last two years working undercover to bust an international ring of party organisers?
It was, in a way, classic Boris Johnson. There was bluster, there was denial, there was boosterism. Starmer was “wasting this House’s time”. Was Bury South now a Labour seat? It would be a Tory seat again soon, and under this prime minister! At that, his side really did cheer. Combined with the Labour jeers, the noise was ear-splitting. On the Tory benches, Gary Sambrook waved a jolly farewell to Wakeford. But Conservative MPs can cheer and still send in letters.
In deep trouble, under hostile fire
Starmer looked comfortable and had the better jokes. “I know it is not going well, prime minister,” he said, “but look on the bright side: at least the staff at Number 10 know how to pack a suitcase.”
There was a revealing moment as the Labour leader asked about the Queen, sitting alone at the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Johnson, shaking his head, gave a dismissive wave of the hand. Not this again. Why do people keep asking him about things that have happened on his watch? We had moved all the way back from “sorry” to “not sorry”. By the time the SNP’s Ian Blackford began asking questions about it all, Johnson was bobbing his head around in bored derision.
And then David Davis got to his feet. “I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take,” he said. Davis often misfires, but he has a good eye for the dramatic. He looked at Johnson. “I will remind him of a quotation that will be altogether too familiar to him. Leo Amery said to Neville Chamberlain: ‘You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. In the name of God, go.’”
Around Davis, his colleagues sat motionless. The Tory benches, the Tory leader, seemed briefly stunned. Johnson rose, to Labour jeers.
“I do not know what he is talking about,” the prime minister finally replied. “I do not know what quotation he is alluding to”. It was an odd answer. Johnson’s grasp of history is famously broad brush, but Amery’s injunction to Chamberlain is the stuff that Tory MPs are weaned on. Perhaps, though, it was a revealing answer. In deep trouble, under hostile fire, Boris Johnson had gone to his safe space: completely implausible denial.
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