An hour into Boris Johnson’s statement to Parliament, Conor Burns crept into the chamber. The minister of state for Northern Ireland had a nervous look about him. Experience has taught him to walk cautiously into rooms occupied by the prime minister.
Fortunately, the only horrifying sight that awaited him was some appalling sucking-up from Conservative MPs. Johnson’s statement was about his recent jaunt to various summits. Given all of the things that had happened while he was away, we had expected that he might be in for a tough time. Instead, he got the easiest ride from parliament that he’s had in months.
The reason was Ukraine. With Vladimir Putin upping the rhetoric and the Ukrainian army retreating, there was a determination on all sides of the chamber not to allow any division. “All of us understand that if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will find new targets,” Johnson said. He was talking about the community of nations, but he might as well have been talking about parliament.
It was all fairly tame
Not that the prime minister was greeted as a returning hero. He walked into the Commons to a cheer that was very much 20 people trying to sound like 200. The benches behind him were sparsely populated: I counted fewer than 60 backbenchers present to hear and support their leader. Kelly Tolhurst, the new deputy chief whip, was in the spot where Christopher Pincher used to stand, behind and to the right of the Speaker’s Chair, a useful blind spot for someone who wants to engage in a bit of heckling.
Her heart didn’t really seem to be in it, though, perhaps because there wasn’t much to heckle. Keir Starmer opened by welcoming the prime minister back to the country. “They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he said. “So I wish him the best of luck in seeing if that works as a party management strategy.” Johnson laughed at that one, and it was as close as the Labour leader came to mentioning the prime minister’s troubles.
Then the loyalists came charging in
At the far end of the Chamber, Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne was in a pose of deep meditation, eyes shut, chin in his chest, doubtless contemplating deep matters of state. There was nothing in what Starmer said to interrupt these contemplations. He offered support on Ukraine and, politely, attacked the government over defence spending and its attempts to rewrite its Brexit deal, but it was all fairly tame.
Johnson was defensive on Brexit. “What the UK is doing is trying to reduce pointless barriers to trade,” he said, which will come as news to anyone driving to Dover. And he repeated his new regular line of attack, that Labour MPs want to get rid of Trident. But it felt like he was going through the motions.
A couple of Tory MPs asked about defence spending. Mark Harper, in school swot mode, asked where the money was going to come from, taxes or cuts elsewhere. Johnson replied airily that it will come from growth. James Gray asked for a rethink of plans for infantry cuts. The prime minister attempted to butter him up. “I know that my friend has military experience himself,” he began his reply. It didn’t really work, with Gray visibly baffled by this reference to his seven years in the Territorial Army in the 1980s, which saw him successfully deter the Red Army from invading Islington.
Then the loyalists came charging in. Sir Edward Leigh dismissed “fluff in newspapers” and praised Johnson’s “resolute leadership”. Crispin Blunt was not to be outdone. “I can’t recall a foreign affairs statement in which the serving prime minister could take more personal satisfaction than the one he has just delivered to the House,” he declared.
This was too much even for Swayne. He roused himself from his contemplations, and ambled from the chamber. The prime minister will be safe, so long as he can keep the conversation on Ukraine.
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