“I have no idea,” Boris Johnson began. He could have been talking about anything, but his specific area of bafflement was why he was in Parliament addressing a confidence motion in his government. Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, helpfully reminded him that it was because he’d asked for one.
Thus prompted, the prime minister, as he still just about is, though he seems to be working flexibly these days, set about a defence of his time in office. He began with his two great triumphs, the 2019 election and Getting Brexit Done (terms and conditions apply).
It was a trip back to Borisland
There was an awkward gear shift as he moved suddenly to Covid. Tory MPs who had been cheering quietened themselves as they realised this was the serious bit. Johnson glided straight over the tricky lockdown stuff to the vaccine. His party has settled on a formula for talking about this time, deployed once again for the occasion, that “we got the big calls right”. This works well, because it covers the fact that they disagree about what those big calls were. Were they locking down, or refusing to lock down? Vaccine passports? Mandatory testing? The tricky issues with which they wrestled — as anyone would have done — are now simply glided over.
It was vintage Johnson, in that it was utterly unmoored from reality. Was there a hint of self-doubt? A moment’s recognition that on every question from locking down to opening up to testing to care homes, his government had wobbled all over the place, offering advice and instructions that changed often by the week? Of course not. To listen to him you would think that one united Tory Party had steered a resolute course in the teeth of wavering from the opposition, rather than being so split that he could often pass measures only with Labour support.
“In so far as the opposition came up with any ideas at all, they would quaveringly call for more lockdowns,” he declared, “while we trusted the British science.” The Halloween lockdown? The Christmas lockdown? Didn’t happen.
There was more. “We have sensibly managed the economy,” Johnson said, suggesting that he hasn’t been following the leadership debates. Michael Fabricant intervened: “Thanks to his intervention, Kiev is still a part of Ukraine, and not a part of Russia!” Would Johnson be going on to point out that the Ukrainian army deserved some of the credit? Not a bit of it! Perhaps he feels it really is all down to him. After all, they also serve who stand and mate.
The Tory benches were not what you’d call full, but those who had turned up loved it, cackling and cheering away. It was a trip back to Borisland, where supermarkets give away a gallon of petrol with every loaf of bread, and a universally loved prime minister was saying farewell after two decades of glorious rule.
There was no word of contrition, no acknowledgement that he had squandered that election win, personally and needlessly dragging his party’s reputation through the mud until his MPs could bear it no longer. The closest he got was a boast that “I am more popular on the streets of Kiev now than I am in Kensington.”
“Boris Johnson: not as bad as Josef Stalin”
He went on with an anecdote about his weekend joyride in a Typhoon. For so long Johnson’s fantasies have been confined to his speeches. Now he’s using his final weeks in office to live them out in what looks like being a series of dressing-up days. This one had been Boris “Big Dog” Johnson, a maverick leader called back for one last do-or-die mission. Furious aides try to tame him — “Your wife’s writing cheques that Lord Bronlow can’t cash” — but Big Dog knows that if you think up there, you’re dead. And if you think acting out the Top Gun aerial combat scenes is bad, tomorrow he’s doing the beach volleyball scene.
“I flew out over the North Sea,” Johnson said. The pilot had told him he could take the controls. “I did a loop the loop and a barrel roll and an aileron roll.” He was delighted by it all, as sure that he had really been flying the Typhoon as any Make-a-Wish child allowed into the cockpit of a multi-million pound fighter jet. It was, in a way, a metaphor for his preferred mode of government, having his photo taken while someone else was really steering.
Finally he departed from reality completely. The “deep state”, he said, was now going to unwind Brexit. Parliament was going to abandon support for Ukraine. Après moi, le déluge, as they say at Chequers soirees.
Keir Starmer was having none of it. “The delusion is never-ending,” he began. The last fortnight has been what Typhoon pilots might call a target-rich environment for the Labour leader, and he dropped his bombs widely. The Tory TV were debates so embarrassing that even the contestants are pulling out. When Conservatives heckled, he told them to “re-read their resignation letters”.
“He’s been forced out in disgrace,” the Labour leader said. “Judged by his colleagues and peers to be unworthy of his position and unfit for office.” As he went over the charge sheet, Johnson sat like a schoolboy getting a final telling off on the last day before he leaves, slumped down, hunched over, arms crossed, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. MPs aren’t supposed to directly accuse each other of lying, but Starmer used the word again and again. Eventually Hoyle made a half-hearted appeal for more temperate language. It made little difference.
Johnson was, the Labour leader said, “a vengeful squatter mired in scandal”. He had been “enabled by a corrupted Conservative party, every step, every scandal and every party along the way.” Johnson began chuntering, and Starmer addressed him directly: “They have no confidence in you. That’s why you’re going.”
Later, Sir Edward Leigh claimed Starmer’s speech was the nastiest he’d ever heard in Parliament, which suggests he hasn’t heard many of Johnson’s. “Where is any sense of kindness or magnanimity?” Leigh pleaded. “Why do we need to throw these insults around?” People, he said, were suggesting the prime minister “was the worst sort of mass murderer in history”. It was, he said, “complete rubbish”.
And let that be a lesson to us all. Perhaps we can add it to Wikipedia. “Boris Johnson: not as bad as Josef Stalin.”
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