The questioning of women

Answers are the hardest words to say

It’s a tribute to the quality of the British education system that it is utterly impossible to get Boris Johnson to admit an error. Even as we stand surrounded by evidence that, on the whole, things haven’t gone too well over the last year, he refuses to give an inch. He argues, he evades, he obfuscates, and if none of those work, he just flat out denies reality. 

Some might wish that the prime minister had learned other skills at Eton and Oxford. Governing, for instance. Or that these institutions, so admired around the world, had instilled him with virtues such as selflessness and honesty. But we can’t have everything.

Readers trapped in their homes for the last year may have found themselves shouting at their televisions, urging the reporters at press conferences to force the prime minister to answer a question. You may have muttered that if only people could all agree to ask the same question, he would be pushed, squirming, towards something that was at least in the neighbourhood of the truth. You would have been wrong.

The prime minister was determined not to give answers and so tried to run down the clock with long answers on the importance of space

We saw a worked example of this at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Keir Starmer went to work on two undisputed facts: that in the 2019 election, Johnson promised not to cut the size of the armed forces “in any form”, and that his government has now decided to reduce the Army from 82,000 troops to 72,000. Those are the facts, and they are undisputed. The Labour leader asked about them five times, and five times the prime minister simply refused to engage with them.

Governments go back on their word all the time. Sometimes they’re forced by circumstances, sometimes they just change their minds. Often, of course, they pretend they haven’t, but on something like this, previous prime ministers would have fronted up and made their case: we said that, now we’re doing this, here’s why, what would you do? Johnson just somehow can’t. 

In some ways, it has been a strength, allowing him to sustain Brexit positions long since abandoned by others less comfortable operating at such a great distance from reality. But if his opponents can find a way to exploit it, it is a big vulnerability. Starmer on Wednesday aimed directly at this soft spot: “What is weaker than making a promise to our armed forces just before the election, then breaking it and not being prepared to admit it—not having the courage to admit it?”

We saw the strength of Johnson’s approach later on, as he appeared before the Liaison Committee of select committee chairs. Darren Jones, for Labour, wanted answers on a series of doubtful government decisions, from investing in a space company to accepting calls from David Cameron. The prime minister was determined not to give them, and so tried to run down the clock, with long answers on the importance of space itself. 

Jeremy Hunt asked Johnson how his secret plan to fix the previously intractable problem of social care was coming along. He had heard a great deal about how good and ready it was back in the leadership contest of 2019, but since then it has mysteriously failed to turn up. Probably it was just lost in the move to Downing Street, packed away at the bottom of a box of books, or folded inside a 1984 copy of Playboy. Johnson promised it would arrive this year. 

We can have inquiries, and hearings, and press conferences, but nothing will dent the impregnable shield of Boris Johnson

Increasingly, it felt like we were in a tutorial, with the prime minister trying to pretend that he had a complete essay written on the pieces of paper he wouldn’t let anyone else see. The chaps were fine, and Tory chair Sir Bernard Jenkin was an indulgent professor, but Labour women did keep asking difficult questions. Yvette Cooper wanted to know why there weren’t more virus tests at the border. She got the full evasion treatment, first with a very long discussion of the nature of France and then, when she complained, with an explanation that it was very important to keep goods moving. It takes some brass neck for Boris Johnson to explain the vital nature of cross-Channel imports to anyone else, but then the prime minister had his shame amputated years ago. 

It fell to Meg Hillier to try to get Johnson to talk about what had gone wrong with the virus. Would he like to identify his biggest mistake? “I wouldn’t want to make a mistake about my greatest mistake and single out the wrong one,” he smarmed, not entirely appropriately when discussing the deaths of tens of thousands. When he was pushed, he got defensive. “Every morning – every morning! – I chair a meeting where we look at the data.” Imagine! Having to attend a meeting EVERY DAY about the biggest crisis facing the world. Surely Churchill didn’t have to put up with this kind of thing?

We can have inquiries, and hearings, and press conferences, but nothing will dent the impregnable shield of Boris Johnson. It would almost make you proud, if it didn’t make you cry. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover