He tweets, he scores!
Allegra thinks it’s all over
Boris Johnson’s critics say he never learns anything, but that’s not fair. Last year, whenever Marcus Rashford started making noise, the government would spend three days insisting they didn’t need to do anything before they backed down. This year, they give in straight away.
Possibly this is the effect of the disappearance from the scene of Dominic Cummings, who would dismiss anything he didn’t want to talk about as the obsession of a few out-of-touch journalists. By last autumn, the list of things that voters apparently didn’t care about included not only his own unique approach to optometry but also hungry children and Manchester Utd.
In the Allegra Stratton era, Rashford barely has to tweet before he gets a call from the prime minister. This week it was about the state of the food boxes that have been sent to families that would usually receive free school meals. Where once a Tory MP would have been instructed to go on the Today programme and explain that a glass of water and some apple peel was all any young person needed to thrive, now Johnson was instantly on the case, promising to speak the person in charge of the country, just as soon as he’d found out who it was.
That gave prime minister’s questions a strange air. When Keir Starmer asked about the food boxes, Johnson called them “disgraceful” and “appalling”, an “insult to families”. He went on: “I am grateful, by the way, to Marcus Rashford, who highlighted the issue and is doing quite an effective job, by comparison with the right honourable and learned gentleman, of holding the government to account for these issues.”
In the Allegra Stratton era, Rashford barely has to tweet before he gets a call from the prime minister
This was an attempt at political judo, trying to turn your attacker’s force against them, but it was effectively saying: “If only you were a little better at your job, the whole country would know how useless I am.” Possibly true, but still an odd way to go. There’s an idea popular in very left-wing circles that Rashford’s successes show up the Labour leader, but it’s a lot easier for a government to give way to a celebrity than to the leader of the opposition.
Starmer replied that “families come last under this government”, which was in its own way also quite unfair on a prime minister who has personally started at least three.
Johnson has got into the habit of using his final answer to the Labour leader to give long attacks that are written well in advance. The challenge for him is therefore to get from whatever he was asked about to whatever the subject of his attack line is. In this case, the jump was from school meals to the European Union vaccine programme. The challenge for the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, is to spot these and cut them off, which he did just as Johnson had got to the last Labour manifesto.
We got a second wave of Johnson later in the afternoon as he appeared before the Liaison Committee. This is made up of select committee chairs who are appointed on a party basis. The effect is that we get questions alternating between “Can we look a bit more closely at the detail of that?” from various Labour MPs and “Is there anything you’d like to tell us about your Brexit triumph, prime minister, or even just your general potency with the ladies?” (Bill Cash, more or less).
Stephen Timms and Hilary Benn did decent jobs pushing Johnson on welfare and Brexit, respectively, but it was Yvette Cooper who really shone. Her confrontations with Johnson are given added spice by the knowledge that each of them represents the person that the other most despised when they were at Oxford – the bluestocking swot who had done the reading and the busking posh boy who couldn’t be bothered. She asked why, if the prime minister was as worried as he said he was about the new Brazilian variant of Covid, it was still possible to come to the UK from Brazil with no additional checks.
“We’re taking steps,” he told her.
“With respect,” Cooper replied, unconvincingly, “what steps?”
“We’re taking steps,” Johnson said again.
Then we got to Pete Wishart, of the Scottish National Party. In any exchange with Starmer, Johnson can get effortlessly to Labour’s Brexit position in one step. The SNP have a similar approach to the question of another independence referendum, only without the step.
The prime minister said it was “incredible” that the SNP wanted to talk about an independence referendum in the middle of a pandemic, although the average SNP MP would interrupt a fight about lifeboats on the Titanic to explain the urgency of reaching a decision on Scotland’s future.
“The last thing the country needs to wrap itself in years of constitutional wrangling on a prospectus that is very unclear,” Johnson said, somehow managing to keep a straight face.
Wishart feigned outrage, but the horrible truth is that it would suit both him and the prime minister to have this dance every night, with Johnson delighting English Tories by affecting not to be able to remember the name of Wishart’s party and Wishart firing up his fellow Nats by demanding satisfaction for this new great slight on the honour of Scotland.
Maybe we really should leave them to it, and get some footballers in to run the country. Rashford, after all, is a multitasker, helping his team to the top of the league in the evening and then fixing government policy the next morning. With Johnson, simply monotasking would be progress.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe