Mish-firing on all cylinders

Boris seeks adulation from an emptying theatre

They flee from him that sometime did him seek. When Boris Johnson rose for Prime Minister’s Questions, the benches behind him were, if not deserted, then half-empty. This half-hour is supposed to be the hot parliamentary ticket of the week, literally standing room only. On Wednesday, you could have got a seat three rows behind the prime minister for a fiver in the cut-price ticket booth in Leicester Square.

“Look at the gaps!” the SNP’s Ian Blackford said, gesturing to the empty spaces. “The rebellion has clearly started.”

Or if not a rebellion, certainly a boycott. At least 50 Conservatives were missing, probably more. Catching up on Netflix boxsets, perhaps, or getting their consultancy invoices in while they’re still legal. Or just pointedly not turning up to support their man.

It was a good week to not show up. Johnson started badly and went downhill. He had a stain on his lapel — breakfast, elevenses? His voice was still hoarse.

By the time he was giving evidence to select committee chairs in the afternoon, the Prime Minister had a hunted look, his eyes darting around the room as he conceded that he hadn’t really understood the case against Owen Paterson and that he had been assured MPs of all parties supported changing the standards rules. Mistakes had been made, he said, though how this had happened remained a mystery. Readers are not, however, advised to bet much money on the survival of the Chief Whip.

PMQs began with a question about Tory donors being nominated for the House of Lords. Johnson didn’t even dispute the charge, instead making a crack about Labour and the unions that might as well have been written for him by someone on work experience.

He was like a public schoolboy who knows his father’s donation exempts him from detention

Keir Starmer asked about the latest broken promise, for new train lines in the north of England. It is dawning on Tory MPs from the north that their leader is better at saying than doing. They heard the Labour leader’s question in silence. When Johnson swerved in his answer, they looked doubtful. Starmer pressed the question, and Johnson told him to “wait and see”. From some politicians, that would mean a better-than-expected announcement coming down the tracks. From this Prime Minister, it is a line offered to buy time to get out of the room.

It didn’t even do that. At the end of the session, Jake Berry, a former Johnson backer who these days displays the fury of the betrayed, asked again about Northern Rail. Johnson reassured him he’d be happy with the announcement. Let’s see.

Starmer moved on to sleaze. Once again, he was heard in silence. Johnson, in reply, raised Starmer’s past work for Mishcon de Reya, but from behind him came none of the “A-HA!” noises that might be expected to accompany such a moment.

“Everybody else has apologised for the Prime Minister, but he will not apologise for himself,” Starmer said. “A coward, not a leader. Weak. Weak. Weak.”

“Coward” is one of the words that MPs aren’t allowed to use of each other. “Corruption” is fine, happily. Sir Desmond Swayne, one of the Tories who had turned up, looked urgently to Speaker Lindsay Hoyle for action. Johnson just flapped his hand at the Labour leader dismissively. Starmer himself seemed to expect to get stopped at this point, but Hoyle had missed the word.

Johnson returned again to Mishcon de Reya, demanding that Starmer name the client for whom he provided advice in 2016. The answer to this would almost certainly disappoint him. In any case, Hoyle interrupted him. “It is not for the opposition to answer your questions,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, those are the rules of the game that we are all into, and we play by the rules, don’t we?” This was greeted with huge laughter from the opposition benches.

Johnson tried again, and this time Hoyle slapped him down even harder: “You may be the Prime Minister of this country, but in this House I am in charge.”

The Prime Minister, though, had a cunning plan. “You have ruled on that, Mr Speaker, and I hear you, I hear you” — he turned back to Starmer — “but his own mish-conduct is absolutely clear to everybody.”

That roused the Tory troops. Next to Johnson, Rishi Sunak bounced up and down as though Oscar Wilde had returned from the grave. Hoyle began an intense discussion with the clerk in front of him. Johnson ploughed on. “His own mish-conduct is absolutely clear.”

Hoyle was on his feet. Had the Prime Minister accused the leader of the opposition of “misconduct”? That’s forbidden. “If it was said, I want it withdrawn.”

Johnson stood up, as pleased as a public schoolboy who knows his father’s donation to the swimming pool fund exempts him from detention this term. “I referred to the right honourable and learned gentleman’s ‘Mish-conduct’,” he said. The Tory benches at last cheered. Boris was back! Admittedly, the Boris who had returned was a lazy newspaper columnist delivering an obscure pun, but it was something. “More!” they cried. It was a pitiful sight.

So pleased with themselves were the Johnson loyalists that at the end of the session, Michael Fabricant leaped up to demand that Starmer be punished for his “coward” remark. This was a daft thing to do, even by Fabricant’s standards. Hoyle admitted he hadn’t heard the crack.

Starmer, looking like a boxer offered a free punch on his opponent, stood slowly. “I withdraw it.” He paused, and smiled at the Conservatives. “But he’s no leader.”

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