Artillery Row Sketch

Is he bovvered?

Boris can do compassion. When he can be bothered.

“I’ve nothing to add to what I just said.” Boris Johnson was up in front of Parliament’s Liaison Committee on Wednesday. To say he was answering its questions would be generous. There was quite a lot of “that’s all I have to say on that matter,” especially when Labour’s Chris Bryant asked awkward questions about who actually paid for the prime minister’s wallpaper.

Liaison Committee shows Johnson at his worst: snippy, disorganised, sulky at the very idea of accountability. Like a teenager being questioned about his GCSE revision, he’s sulky and resentful even when he does know the answer. Asked about the most recent departure from his government, he referred to “Mr Hancock, the former health secretary”, as though talking about some distant figure that he had a feeling he might have met once. The mind went, again to the humiliations that Hancock endured on Johnson’s behalf. Ingratitude, thy name is Boris.

He came to life only when the Conservative MP, Philip Dunne, mangled his pronunciation of “lacuna”, making it sound like “vicuna” – a South American herbivore. An instinctive bully, the prime minister enjoyed correcting him. As the Sketch has noted before, these events give an appalling vision of what it must have been like to attend tutorials with Johnson.

It was a testy session. If Bryant’s opening questions on ethics were as hostile as might be expected from a Labour MP, the ones from the Tories were scarcely gentler. Even Sir Bernard Jenkin, who these days tends towards loyalty, was showing impatience, every so often adding another question to the list which he wanted the prime minister to answer in writing afterwards.

Only from Sir Bill Cash was there much generosity of spirit, as they discussed the appalling border in the Irish Sea and how unfair it was, and wondered aloud how it had come into being, without Johnson ever saying “because I negotiated it and you voted for it.”

Earlier, we’d had, at prime minister’s questions, a brief flash of the kind of thoughtful answers that Johnson is capable of giving, if he can be bothered. We’ll come back to that.

These events give an appalling vision of what it must have been like to attend tutorials with Johnson

First he had his regular exchange with Keir Starmer, who this week wanted to know about the impact of the Great Unlockdown, and whether, as suggested, millions of us will find ourselves forced to spend the summer holidays locked in our homes because we stood next to someone in the supermarket queue for too long.

Johnson’s usual approach is to mischaracterise his opponent’s position and then mock it. It’s dirty, but it’s effective. There are signs that the Labour leader too is preparing to play rough. He talked about the new infection that’s been sweeping the nation since the delay in stopping travel from India: “The Delta, or we can call it, the Johnson Variant.” At that, the prime minister looked up, a worried expression on his face. It’s an unfair line, that doesn’t explain why other countries are also afflicted, but like “Captain Hindsight” it contains just enough truth that it might stick.

Johnson claimed that the public were much more interested in hearing Labour’s position on lockdown. This seems unlikely, and he said it so many times that Speaker Lindsay Hoyle interrupted him not once but twice to tell him he was there to answer, not ask.

“The prime minister cannot just wish away the practical problems that 100,000 infections a day are going to cause,” Starmer said, although the Johnson approach to problems has long been to wish them away, and it’s taken him right to the top.

The prime minister finished with his usual alliterations. “We vaccinate, they vacillate,” he said. “We inoculate, while they are invertebrate.” Is this really the wit of one of the nation’s highest-paid writers? As so often, he seemed to be phoning it in.

And then, just at the end of PMQs, an MP got under his skin. Labour’s Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi made a furious speech, talking about family members who had died from Covid and the pain that had been caused by restrictions that stopped him from being able to comfort relatives.

Oddly, his question was why Johnson hadn’t sacked Dominic Cummings for his road trip. Perhaps this government is so weighed down with scandal that Labour backbenchers are still working their way through last year’s. But it seems to have stung Johnson in a way that little does.

A man who is so often glib and dismissive of others, he suddenly seemed compassionate. “Perhaps the best thing I can say is how deeply I, the government and everybody sympathise,” he replied. “No one who has not been through something like that can imagine what it must feel like to be deprived of the ability to mourn properly and to hold the hands of a loved one in their last moments.”

He went on, offering a line that, if used a little more often and with humility, might buy him a lot of credit. “All I can say is that we have tried throughout this pandemic to minimise human suffering and to minimise loss of life. He asks me to apologise,” Johnson said. “I do.”

It didn’t quite address Dhesi’s point, but it was a decent answer. He can give them, he just generally can’t be bothered.

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