“Let me have about me men that are fat. Sleek-headed men and such as sleep at nights.” Julius Caesar knew what he was talking about. A leader needs contented supporters.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson, another ruler in some danger of not making it past mid-March. He was in Parliament to be asked questions, if not to answer them, but first he got a reprimand from Lindsay Hoyle. On the prime minister’s last appearance, he’d suggested that questions about Covid-secure sittings in the Commons were for the Speaker, something that Hoyle was keen to correct, there having been some tension over the matter earlier in the summer. “If the government wished to pass me the power, I would be more than happy to accept it,” he told Johnson, who appeared completely unchastened: he has been ticked off in too many headmasters’ studies to care about another one.
And so to PMQs. This used to be the noisiest session of the week, but Covid-19 restrictions in the chamber mean that even a prime minister with a majority of 80 has no supporting wall of sound behind him. Which brings us to Caesar’s advice.
With the likelihood that such restrictions will be with us for some time, Johnson has restructured his PMQs set up. Usually, a prime minister would be squeezed in on the front bench between top ministers, to show how much they supported him, and behind him would be his parliamentary private secretary, passing him vital pieces of information to help him fend off his attackers.
But no one is allowed to sit directly behind Johnson, or to squeeze in next to him. Instead, the chief whip, Mark Spencer is at the end of the bench, and in the middle of the next bench is Johnson’s PPS, Alex Burghart.
This sketch has no insight into whether Spencer sleeps at night, but with Conservative MPs in the mood they are, he really shouldn’t. His main role on these occasions is to pass on pieces of paper from Burghart, selected from a binder through with the PPS moves at speed as he tries to work out where an MP asking a question is going.
Burghart is what Johnson would, in other circumstances, undoubtedly refer to as a girly swot, having as he does a PhD. But a tame swot is what you need when you haven’t done your homework, and besides, Burghart’s field is Anglo-Saxon history, meaning he can talk happily about England being divided into tiers, each of them covered by different laws.
Both Burghart and Spencer can often be seen on camera, but what could only be seen if you were in the chamber on Wednesday was the other part of the prime minister’s support network. On the very back bench behind Johnson were, each one spaced two metres – or one Rees-Mogg, if you prefer Anglo-Saxon measures – from the next, a row of keen young Tory men, there to bellow support.
These are febrile times in the Tory Party
Most of them won their seats in the last election, and they certainly seem to be enjoying themselves in Westminster. Can five sleek-headed men make the same noise as 300? No, they can’t, but they can try. “HEE-YAR, HEE-YAR, HEE-YARRRRR!” they yelled, as Johnson pledged to do “whatever it takes” to fight the virus. “URRR-RURRR-RURRR!” they chuntered, as Keir Starmer said he thought the prime minister needed to do more. “AHA!” they bellowed as Johnson asked Starmer why Labour abstained on the 10pm curfew vote on Tuesday evening.
Their finest moment came with Starmer’s fourth question, when he described Johnson as being “someone who has been an opportunist all his life.” The Tory back bench rocked in their seats and gestured at the Labour leader, horrified at the very suggestion. “AHHH-NOOO-HEYYYY!” they cried. Imagine the idea of questioning Boris Johnson’s integrity! It was inconceivable to them. Did Anglo-Saxons fight duels over their king’s honour? Burghart will know. Someone pass him a note.
It took Johnson to silence them. Starmer’s final question asked him to support a short “circuit break” lockdown, as Labour propose. The prime minister began on his scripted reply accusing Starmer of opportunism, and then, perhaps goaded by a question from the opposition benches, it was hard to say, interrupted himself: “I rule out nothing, of course.”
Briefly, the back bench was silent. There was a little gasp from the Labour side. Had the prime minister made an admission?
These are febrile times in the Tory Party. Would the Cabinet support another national lockdown, even a brief one, or would someone walk out? Yon Sunak has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.
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