Artillery Row Sketch

Lord of the Flies (but not the zippers)

Tribal warfare suits the chieftain of Tory island

“Better or worse?” Keir Starmer asked Boris Johnson, repeatedly, like an optician closing in on a prescription. It was the last prime minister’s questions before the local elections, and a time for sloganeering on both sides. However depressing and unenlightening you usually find PMQs, the sessions before local elections always somehow manage to be even worse: more chanting, more mad claims, more strange indescribable noises from the herds on the backbenches.

This tends to flatter Johnson. Eton prepares a boy for a world of incomprehensible chants and tribal jeers. If the Conservative parliamentary party found itself marooned on a desert island, it would be a matter of hours before the prime minister had grabbed the conch and organised the hunt and slaughter of one of the weaker MPs.

Johnson was like a huge blond ape that had climbed the dispatch box

On Wednesday, though, the party was still tethered to civilisation, or as much of it as the House of Commons can offer. So Johnson opened by listing the government’s achievements: bills passed, police hired, Cabinet ministers fined (I may have imagined one of those). “We are focused on delivering the people’s priorities,” he said, “and there is plenty more to come.” This at least is true whether your priorities are symbolic Home Office announcements or investigations into prime ministers.

Starmer, in so many ways the un-Johnson, is much less good at the tribal stuff. It wasn’t that his lines were poor. Johnson was “the Comical Ali of the cost-of-living crisis”, he said. Britain’s growth was “set to be lower than every G20 country except one: Russia”. But he is a sensiblist, an unpopulist. There was something flat about his questioning. On the frontbench next to him, Thangam Debbonaire was making notes on something else, nodding in agreement as she went through her paperwork.

The Labour leader’s questions weren’t vague, exactly, but they played to the prime minister’s strengths. He’s never happier than when he’s called upon to offer boosterism. Do you say inflation is going up? Well the living wage is going even upper! And so is employment! And taxes are going down, if you squint and cover one eye. Is any of this true? Who cares? Perhaps that faint sound we thought we heard, over all the cheers from the government benches, was millions of fact checkers suddenly crying out in terror and then handing in their spreadsheets in despair.

Starmer tried again. “The prime minister is an ostrich,” he said, “keeping his head in the sand.” This would explain the hair, of course. But Johnson seemed more like a huge blond ape that had climbed the dispatch box, waving his arms and beating his chest, swatting at statistics as though they were biplanes flying in to attack. (Naturally in this reboot of King Kong, the beast hasn’t taken a blonde hostage: the prime minister had explained to us all very solemnly that he abhorred misogyny and sexism, and if you’d got a different impression over the years, that reflects on you, not him.)

There is something awe-inspiring about the prime minister’s ability to traduce his opponents. Labour’s opposition to tax rises showed, he said, that the party was against the NHS. When one of his less reliable claims about employment was greeted by a wall of jeers, he stopped, pointed at the opposition benches, and announced: “They don’t care about jobs. We do!” He didn’t actually beat his chest and roar, but he might as well have done.

So relaxed was the prime minister, leaning on the dispatch box, other hand in his pocket, that he felt able to move into commentary on his opponent. “This guy is doomed to be a permanent spectator,” he said, to cheers from his own side.

MPs aren’t allowed to call each other liars, but is self-abuse permitted?

Starmer was fine. Decisively not bad. Inspiringly OK. But others had more success at bringing Johnson down to earth. Caroline Lucas of the Greens asked about the 56 MPs under investigation for sexual misconduct, including three Cabinet members, and was told briskly that “of course” sexual harassment is grounds for dismissal from the government. Not much else seems to be.

And Daisy Cooper, a Liberal Democrat, even got an apology, asking about the catastrophic policy of sending people infected with Covid from hospitals into care homes. Johnson was suddenly deflated. “I want to remind the House what an incredibly difficult time that was,” he stumbled. When you see how hard he finds reality, you understand why he’s so reluctant to engage with it.

Both sides got their election slogans in, though it seems hard to imagine that many people will be voting on the basis of PMQs. The main audience was probably in the room: Johnson offering a reminder that he can, on occasion, make his MPs feel good about the fact that they follow him.

Though only if they’re paying attention. Minutes before the session started, we learned that an unidentified Tory MP had been accused of watching pornography in the chamber. This was astonishing at all sorts of levels. It’s so difficult to get a decent internet connection in there that most of us would settle for being able to check Twitter. Are there rules about porn during debates?

We know MPs aren’t allowed to call each other liars, but is self-abuse permitted? Perhaps this is what Hansard means when it tells us that “several honourable members rose”. It certainly gives a new meaning to a backbench motion.

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