Artillery Row Sketch

He’s as mad as hell

The Speaker isn’t going to take it anymore – not from Boris at any rate.

The House of Commons was angry. Fuming. Everyone (except Andrew Griffith, but we’ll come to him later) was furious. The atmosphere was like the losers’ café in The Apprentice, but without the bonhomie.

The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, was breathing fire. Matt Hancock was incensed. His Labour shadow, Jonathan Ashworth, was outraged. Yvette Cooper was infuriated. Steve Brine was livid. Boris Johnson was … oh, well, of course, Boris Johnson wasn’t there.

We’d seen him earlier on, addressing us from his zillion-pound media suite (media still excluded) as he explained that, guess what, lockdown was going to go on for another four weeks. We had to be cautious, he explained. “I think it is sensible to wait just a little longer,” he said, and then Chris Whitty produced some graphs. More than a year in, I think we have to accept that the illegibility and incomprehensibility of these is deliberate.

The problem, they explained, was the Delta variant. It’s noteworthy that the one piece of political correctness that Johnson’s office has grasped with both hands is to stop referring to this flavour of Covid as the Indian variant. Perhaps the prime minister would rather we forgot where it came from. The general assumption is that the reason the UK waited so long to ban travel from India in April was that he didn’t want to cancel his planned trade trip there.

The press conference was insipid. The thing about hearing Johnson explain that the thing he promised wouldn’t happen is in fact happening right now is that, after the first 100 times, it gets a bit dull. His heart wasn’t in it.

Over at the Commons, however, they were in it body and soul. The mood was filthy. Sir Lindsay Hoyle, readers may recall, was elected to bring a calmer mood to parliament after the excesses of John Bercow. Hoyle’s pleasant demeanour, his large menagerie of pets and his genuine concern for all those who work in the building seems to have led Number 10 to conclude that he’s a pushover.

No more. Mr Speaker was mad as hell, and he wasn’t going to take it any more. The worm had turned, and he was packing an Uzi. At half past three he had stood up in the chamber and attacked Johnson for planning to announce the lockdown extension in a press conference, not in parliament.

“I was told no decisions had been taken,” he raged. “That no decisions will be taken until the Cabinet meets. The fact is I am being misled. This House is being misled.”

Tory MPs were angry, too. Sir Edward Leigh suggested Johnson wanted to face “a few patsy questions” from the press rather than “be grilled by MPs”, a comment that suggests that in his decades in the House, Sir Edward has never once watched prime minister’s questions. Hoyle said it was only at his insistence that the Health Secretary, Hancock, would be attending Parliament that evening.

Five hours later, the Speaker was, if anything, angrier. He had been told earlier, he said, that Johnson couldn’t give the statement because he was attending the NATO summit in Brussels, but the prime minister had very obviously been just down the road two hours earlier. “The prime minister should be here,” he seethed. “I am sorry if his dinner would have been affected. I say now, prime minister, you are on my watch, and I want you to treat this House correctly.”

We will see if anything comes of this. Maybe the prime minister will arrive tomorrow with a bunch of flowers from a petrol station and a story about his car breaking down.

You’re all Captain Hindsight. It was like the ending of Spartacus, only more petulant.

Hancock, for his part, was even grumpier than Hoyle. Because he’d been forced to give this statement? Because people kept asking why they’d delayed blocking travel from India? Because he was having to clear up another of Johnson’s messes? It wasn’t clear. Perhaps he had simply decided to fight ire with ire.

Labour’s Ashworth had blamed Johnson for delaying imposing restrictions on travel from India long after it had been clear there was an issue. “The prime minister should have moved at lightning speed to prevent the delta variant reaching our shores,” he said. “Instead he dithered, and tonight he is responsible for this delay.”

Hancock was not having any of that. His anger took him to the point of incoherence. Labour, he said, had proved that they just wanted to keep us locked down for ever. The logic of this was unclear. Anyway, Ashworth, he said, was “Captain Hindsight”. No, hang on, the SNP’s Philippa Whitford was Captain Hindsight. You’re all Captain Hindsight. It was like the ending of Spartacus, only more petulant.

Tory MPs were angry too, obviously. They wanted data, they wanted details, they wanted assurances. They didn’t get them. They were furious, almost to a man.

Almost, but not quite. Andrew Griffith had an important question for Hancock, the sort of question that, Sir Edward Leigh had correctly observed, rarely gets asked at press conferences. “Will he …” we waited. What was it going to be? Eat his words? Resign? Step over to my desk where he’ll find a bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver? “Will he accept my thanks for saving summer?”

Hancock rose. “Yes,” he replied.

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