How do you solve a problem like Boris?

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?


Boris Johnson entered the House of Commons to the noise of thirty very loyal Tory MPs trying to sound like three hundred. Operation Boost Big Dog was underway, with trusted Conservative MPs positioned around the chamber to cheer him on. Dolby Surround Toadying, if you like. It did seem quite authentic until, early in Prime Minister’s Questions, a Johnson attack on Labour generated a genuine roar from the benches behind him, offering a contrast to a sound the rest of the time that What Hi-Fi would probably characterise as “lacking heft”.

Johnson sat down on a frontbench that felt oddly empty. The more junior members of the Cabinet had, as is their habit, squeezed to one end so that there would be room next to the prime minister for the big beasts. But big beasts came there none. Liz Truss is isolating with covid, but where were Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab? Had they tested positive too, or have they all decided to stay at least two metres away from their increasingly toxic leader? 

Possibly he was trying to remember whether the fascists were the goodies or the baddies

The session opened with a statement from Lindsay Hoyle. In recent weeks, the Speaker has wrestled with a Johnson-specific problem. Parliamentary rules forbid members from calling one another liars. But this prime minister simply is a, well, “liar” is an inadequate word. Falsehood and evasion are to Boris Johnson as the wind and the air are to a soaring eagle. Accusing him of deception is like accusing a salmon of swimming: the act is so instinctive that he would struggle to understand the concept.

Hoyle clearly has some sympathy with those infuriated by this. In recent weeks he’s allowed increasingly creative manoeuvres by MPs who wanted to point out that no one believes a word the prime minister says. On Wednesday, though, he had decided to draw a line. Rules, he explained to MPs, is rules. “The Chair,” he said, “will not tolerate accusations of lying or of deliberately misleading the House.” At some point soon, the Chair may have to decide how it feels about the action of lying and deliberately to the House, but Hoyle clearly still hopes someone else will take this task on for him.

We began PMQs with Jimmy Savile. Johnson, who pretty recently described money spent investigating child sex abuse as “spaffed up the wall”, on Monday accused Keir Starmer of being personally responsible for the failure to prosecute Savile. This was, to use language that would make Hoyle twist uncomfortably in his seat, untrue. And it took into the mainstream a conspiracy theory that had previously dwelt mainly in the kind of place you don’t want anyone to find in your browsing history. 

On Monday Starmer had annoyed Tories by quoting Margaret Thatcher on the importance of governments obeying the law. On Wednesday he pulled out the big gun. “Theirs is the party of Winston Churchill,” he began. “Our parties stood together as we defeated fascism in Europe. Now their leader stands in the House of Commons parroting the conspiracy theories of violent fascists to try to score cheap political points.” Johnson stared at Starmer in mock bafflement. Possibly he was trying to remember whether the fascists were the goodies or the baddies, or at least whether they had captured Stalingrad

Lots of words, lots of bluster, but no answers

“He knows exactly what he is doing,” Starmer went on. “It is time to restore some dignity.” 

Johnson, however, knew it was too late for that. “I do not want to make heavy weather of this, but I am informed that in 2013 he apologised and took full responsibility for what had happened on his watch, and I think that was the right thing to do.”

As ever, the most impressive part was the chutzpah. The prime minister, who claims to have been unaware of lockdown-busting parties that he actually attended, who is unable to say whether he was present when one was held in his own flat, was commending Starmer for taking responsibility for something he hadn’t been involved in because he was in charge of the organisation where it had happened. 

Topsy-turviness was to be the theme of the exchange. The Labour leader complained about rising taxes. The Conservative leader defended big government spending. In truth, both men would probably have been happier taking the other one’s brief. At one stage Johnson began a list of all the things the government was buying for the NHS. It was the kind of thing that would have got a rising roar at Labour conference. Tory MPs heard it in near silence. 

“Lots of words, lots of bluster, but no answers,” joked Starmer. “A word of warning, prime minister: that will not work with the police.”

But in the end the best laugh went to Johnson, when asked by the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood if he was only in politics for himself. “No Mr Speaker,” the prime minister replied, “I am in it to serve my country and the entire United Kingdom.” That one brought the house down, but until they change the rules, no one in parliament is allowed to deny it.

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