Artillery Row

Pained Boris muddles through

The prime minister had a bruising session at the Liaison Committee

Boris Johnson appeared before the Liaison Committee today, a group made up of the Chairmen of other Select Committees. Or some of them at any rate, with various figures like Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat being winnowed out because, we were told, of the logistical impossibility of involving all 37 potential participants in the parliamentary Zoom. Much bitter briefing by the excluded to their preferred outlets has followed. The Prime Minister hasn’t appeared before it before, despite being appointed prime minister ten months ago. The proclaimed goal is that the PM should appear three times annually.

Bernard Jenkin, the chairman newly appointed by the government, pressed Mr Johnson to agree to coming regularly  – a promise which he declined to make due to scarce time pressure – and the amount of time it took for his civil servants to prepare for a hearing.

But the visibly flagging prime minister’s toughest time came when the inevitable questions about Dominic Cummings arrived. The PM said “of course” he’s sorry for the “pain, the anguish and the heartbreak” people are experiencing due to the coronavirus outbreak – but Boris Johnson appeared before the Liaison Committee today. This was the prime minister’s first appearance before the committee, despite being appointed to his office ten months ago.

The SNP’s Pete Wishart made long-winded remarks about how he had  “united the country … in condemnation and indignation” but the best line of attack, as proved by Labour’s Meg Hillier, came from short questions. Mr. Johnson found the following exchange very difficult:

Meg Hillier: prime minister, you said that a number of the allegations that are made about Dominic Cummings were false, you were with him for six hours, did you see the evidence to prove that?

PM: Erm, Meg, I, you know, I don’t want to go into …

Meg Hillier: It’s a simple question, did you see the evidence?

PM: I don’t want to go into much more than I’ve said. If it pleases you I will say yes I did …

Meg Hillier: OK that’s fine prime minister, you saw the evidence, would you agree that it would be a good idea for the cabinet secretary to see that or for it to be published and then this problem would be off your table?

PM: I think that actually it would not be doing my job if I were to now shuffle this problem into the hands of officials who, believe me, Meg are, as I think the public would want, working flat out to dealing with Coronavirus.

Later, when asked by Greg Clark about whether, in response to contact-tracers getting in touch, people would be required by law to self-isolate – the prime minister was very weak and seemingly unprepared for that topic. After a great deal of bluster he resolved that they would look at sanctions if people did not do so when asked. The suspicion lingered that Boris Johnson had put more work into being prepared for questions about Dominic Cummings that he had into being on top of government policy on the pandemic.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper had him on the ropes at one point on the subject of people travelling distances for childcare but in the end he largely escaped unscathed as Cooper, as she is often prone to doing, descended into long and angry declaratives without asking a question.

The pained Prime Minister muddled through the near two-hour session. But the problem of his special advisor did not go away during it: another Tory MP, Giles Watling called on Mr. Cummings to resign while he was before the Committee. Day five beckons.

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