Boris Johnson walked into the House of Commons to a determined cheer from supporters on his own side and a rather more joyful one from the opposition benches. Conservatives may not be sure quite where they’ve got themselves, but Labour and SNP MPs want them to stay there.
Labour’s Angela Eagle had the first question, and wasn’t messing about. “This week’s events have demonstrated just how loathed” — she lingered over the word — “the prime minister is,” she began. “And that’s only in his own party.”
Starmer looked baffled, and a bit deflated
Her colleagues loved it, the government benches less so. Dominic Raab, sitting next to the prime minister, seemed uncomfortable. He appears to function these days as the solicitor to the accused, whispering “don’t answer that” as questions come in. Liz Truss tried to keep her face utterly immobile, but there was for a moment the slightest hint of a smile.
Johnson, however, seemed revived by the attack. Minutes earlier he had looked, frankly, shattered. Now he was in his happy place, the centre of attention. “In a long political career – barely begun – I have of course picked up political opponents all over the place,” he said, waving his hand airily. The Labour benches pointed at the Tory MPs behind him. “That is because this government have done some very big and very remarkable things that they did not necessarily approve of.” Was he talking about the lockdown parties again?
Keir Starmer rose. A lot was expected of him, and as ever, he didn’t really deliver. It’s not that he’s terrible. Veterans of the Jeremy Corbyn years know what “terrible” looks like at PMQs. But not even Starmer’s closest friends would have said he was inspiring. Facing a divided party, rampant inflation, an economic crisis and a government whose big idea is the return of the firkin to the school syllabus, the Labour leader was, on the whole, OK.
Then we were off to Borisland, where the sun always shines
The Tory benches could sense his nervousness with the instinct of school bullies who know which of the class wimps is closest to tears. They heckled, they jeered, they chatted amongst themselves. A different leader of the opposition would have found a way to put them on the back foot, pointing out that they’ve just handcuffed themselves to a leader who is sinking like a stone. It’s the sort of thing Tony Blair did to John Major, and that David Cameron did in his turn to Blair. Johnson would probably be really good at it.
He had decided to ignore Monday’s confidence vote and focus on the NHS. Why, he asked, had Nadine Dorries said the health service had been “wanting and inadequate” when the pandemic hit? Johnson brushed that one off easily enough, and Starmer tried again. Along the front bench, Dorries was consulting one of the clerks, who was shaking his head, as if explaining to her that lamping the leader of the opposition would be out of order, however much he might be asking for it.
The prime minister was listing all the ways that the NHS is in batter shape than ever before. He was doing the thing where he sticks his hand down the back of his trousers again. Close watching suggested the problem was that his shirt kept coming untucked. This is really not a problem that men should have over the age of ten. Frankly, you’d think that if anyone had had enough practice doing up their trousers, it was Johnson.
Starmer carried on, asking about hospital buildings. Dorries was still outraged at hearing her name in his mouth. Was she going to go the full Will Smith? Alok Sharma muttered something to her. Leave it Nad, he’s not worth it.
By this time, Johnson looked positively relaxed. Were things going wrong? It was the fault of the Labour Party. Starmer launched into another long, long question. James Cleverly, the ultra-loyal Europe Minister, had positioned himself in the middle of the Conservative backbenches and was heckling heartily.
Finally, Starmer told the story of a man who rang six times for an ambulance for his dying mother without getting one. That silenced the room. It even slowed Johnson for a moment. “Everybody in the House has sympathy,” the prime minister began. “I share their feelings.” He paused for a beat. “But…” and then we were off to Borisland, where the sun always shines, the economy is booming, and the next round is on someone else. So confident was the prime minister that he demanded Labour correct inaccurate statements. It is part of the magic that is Johnson that he can pull this sort of thing off without dying of shame.
Starmer looked baffled, and a bit deflated. At one level, we can sympathise. The prime minister’s ability to deny reality makes him impervious to criticism. But still, he ought to have done better.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. William Hague was great at PMQs, and it got him nowhere. For all Cameron’s rhetorical skill, his government was not, in retrospect, a complete triumph. Unless Durham Police come to the rescue, Labour will have to build a campaign around the leader they’ve got. “Settle for Starmer,” the posters will say. “You’ve Had Worse.”
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