Artillery Row Sketch

Whole lotta Lockdown

With friends like Tory backbenchers, who needs Cabinet colleagues?

It is now a matter of national importance that we establish the precise words that Boris Johnson used when he made his wish on the monkey’s paw. “To be the prime minister who unites Conservative MPs”? “To be a Saturday night ratings hit”? We have to find out soon.

The cursed paw was twitching as he returned to the House of Commons on Monday afternoon. It’s a feature of British democracy that statements delivered in the House of Commons are then read out in the House of Lords. In a constitutional innovation, the prime minister had come to the Commons to repeat the statement he made on television on Saturday evening.

If you want to know how bad things are, Johnson had combed his hair

The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, was not happy about this. Noting that Johnson had promised to find out who blabbed about this week’s lockdown, Hoyle told the Commons: “I expect the prime minister to keep the House updated on this leak inquiry.” Worse, the Speaker said that if the culprit turned out to be an MP, he would expect them to come and make an apology. This rather raises the stakes of the inquiry, which has a very short list of very senior suspects.

And then we were onto the main business. If you want to know how bad things are, Johnson had combed his hair. That’s about as bad as it gets. In the 1980s, Soviet spies trying to work out if nuclear war was imminent used to count how many office lights were on at the Ministry of Defence. These days they’d just rate the neatness of the prime minister’s thatch.

Johnson was addressing two sets of critics: Labour MPs opposite him, who argue that he has delayed acting, and by doing so, has left us needing a longer lockdown, and Conservative MPs behind him, who believe he is even now overreacting.

His answer to the first group was best summed up in his response to Labour’s Lucy Powell: “I’m afraid the facts have changed. The number of people admitted to hospital is up every day.”

Keir Starmer had an open goal, and didn’t miss. One of the great skills in opposition is to work out what the government is going to do, and then call for it first. And you don’t have to get out of bed very early to get ahead of this government. Simply making a cup of coffee in your dressing gown gives you a strategic advantage.

“At every stage, the prime minister has been too slow,” Starmer said. “At every stage he’s pushed away challenge, ignored advice, and put what he hoped would happen ahead of what is happening. At every stage he’s over-promised, and under-delivered.” Three weeks ago, Tory MPs were heckling Starmer over his call for a lockdown. Now they listened in silence.

Then they had their turn. Johnson was on his feet for two and a quarter hours, and almost none of the Tory MPs who asked him questions offered wholehearted support to their leader. The angriest was Sir Charles Walker, who accused him of creating an “authoritarian, coercive state.”

Boris doesn’t strike me as a golfer, though of course it is an ideal sport for cheats

Sammy Wilson for the Democratic Unionists, who last year helped to put Johnson where he is, was furious. “Rather than a Churchillian response, we have had response more like Lord Halifax,” he said – he knows how to hurt a man. “While we’ve had the rhetoric of defiance, this announcement today was an announcement of defeat.” Ulster was saying No to Covid.

After that, things got a little easier for Johnson. Tory MPs sounded unhappy but not mutinous. Their main question, asked again and again, was whether the government could at least allow people to play golf. Johnson would sigh sadly each time and explain that “alas” he could not. He doesn’t strike me as a golfer, though of course it is an ideal sport for cheats.

Apart from commenting once that “Sweden is not the slam dunk that some people think,” the prime minister made little effort to take on the critics behind him. This may have been an effort to be conciliatory, but it left the impression that he felt more at the mercy of events than their master. “It is only 28 days,” he said at one point.

It was left to Sir Bernard Jenkin to ride to the rescue. “I will support his measures, because nobody has put forward a viable immediate alternative,” he said, pointing out the key problem for rebels. But even this aid package came with conditions, calling for a change of leadership for the track-and-trace operation – effectively a call for the head of Dido Harding.

“I’m grateful to my right honourable friend for all his excellent suggestions,” Johnson replied, in what didn’t really sound like an endorsement for Harding. Was she doing a brilliant job in difficult circumstances? He neglected to mention it.

A strange thing is happening. A prime minister with a majority of 80 is disappearing before our eyes, unable to defend his appointees, his decisions or his policies, despised by his own side and opposition alike. It is all so terribly difficult, being in government. If only someone had warned him. You should be careful what you wish for.

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

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

Critic magazine cover