Event horizon

Boris’s believable border boasts

Artillery Row Sketch

If 2 February is Groundhog Day, is 3 February some kind of strange day of misrule? We seem to be living through the oddest time.

Boris Johnson, a man who couldn’t be more careless of the Irish border question if it were one of his children, finds himself placed on the moral high ground by Ursula Von Der Leyen.

Johnson’s government, meanwhile, one in which “basic competence” has generally been regarded as a character defect, seems to be leading the world in vaccinating people.

And finally, the sketch is bound to report that at Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson and Keir Starmer had an argument about who had said what, and the Labour leader later admitted he’d been mistaken.

There had been a row about whether Starmer had called for the UK to stay inside the European Medicines Agency. This seems likely to have been a trap, as Tories and their media outriders were suspiciously well prepared with three-year-old video of Starmer in the Commons. But the Labour leader fell into it, denying ever having called for such a thing.

Imagine having to apologise to actual Boris Johnson for saying something inaccurate at PMQs

He was, we were told, sufficiently angry afterwards to have confronted the prime minister in the corridor behind the Speaker’s chair. There were scenes, apparently, and suggestions that Starmer had to be dragged away, EastEnders-style, presumably by a whip shouting: “Leave ‘im Keir, ‘e’s not worf it!” The more dramatic parts of this have been denied, which is sad, as it would have been the most interesting thing Starmer had done in some time. Later, his office issued a statement: “Keir admits he was wrong and made a mistake in his response.”

Imagine having to apologise to actual Boris Johnson for saying something inaccurate at PMQs. Johnson, after all, seems a man more likely to feel a pang of remorse if he accidentally says something true. It would be quite understandable if Starmer wanted to go back into self-isolation, simply out of shame.

Tory MPs were outraged. Someone not telling the truth from the dispatch box during PMQs! The absolute horror! Emergency fainting couches and smelling salts were deployed to Conservative offices across Westminster as word spread.

Just as we were starting to wonder though whether the whole order of the universe had been upended, things were restored to normal, in an answer to Ian Paisley. The living one: no Romish seances were involved.

The DUP MP wanted to know what Johnson was going to do about the border in the Irish Sea. This is a tricky one for Johnson, since agreeing to the Irish Sea border was the way he delivered his great triumph, Brexit. His solution up until now has simply been to deny that this was what he had agreed to. This has become a little harder in the weeks since Brexit has actually arrived, what with the government that the prime minister leads very definitely implementing the border that he very clearly agreed to.

The DUP are very much the authors of their own problems

Fortunately, Johnson was saved at least for a week by the European Union, of all people. His usual tactic with any tricky questions at PMQs is to answer the question he wishes he’d been asked, and he did so this time as well. “I utterly share the honourable gentleman’s frustration,” Johnson said, before going on to talk vaguely about von der Leyen’s Irish intervention of Friday evening. He pledged to “do everything we need to” to “ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

Did he mean it? Is the government going to redraw the agreements it so recently signed? Perhaps we really have gone through the looking glass, into a topsy-turvy world where Boris Johnson says what he means, but the sketch isn’t betting on it. It seems likelier that the prime minister is, as ever, just telling people what they want to hear so that he can get out of the room.

As for the DUP, what can we say? Their situation is terrible but, having helped to put Johnson where he is, they are very much the authors of their own problems. Imagine having believed a promise from Boris Johnson. Even on a day of misrule, that feels like an elementary mistake.

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