Boris’s buffoonery and banter no laughing matter at PMQs

“They jabber, we jab. They dither, we deliver. They vacillate, we vaccinate.” It’s asking a lot of an overindulged narcissist, but a man with even a patina of emotional intelligence might have realised that to accuse Labour of jabbering when Keir Starmer had used his six questions at prime minister’s questions to challenge the government’s record on the appallingly low rate of rape prosecutions and convictions was at best crass and at worst offensive.

But then Boris just can’t help himself. When the pressure’s on, the mask slips. The third-rate gag – don’t forget it was Johnson who once described investigations into non-recent child sex offences as money spaffed up a wall – is his modus operandi. It’s how he has traditionally tried to rescue himself from difficult circumstances. Do anything to raise a laugh from somewhere and hope to defuse the situation. Only when the subject matter is rape, it’s just not funny.

Johnson had started PMQs with a curious celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum result, in which he chose the introduction of freeports and the vaccination programme – neither of which has anything to do with the UK having voted to leave the EU – as examples of taking back control. He didn’t mention his failure to close the border with India that has made the UK the Delta variant capital of Europe. Even so, in hindsight, this was probably the high point of what was one of his worst performances for some months. You get the feeling that Boris’s preparation for PMQs is measured in minutes, not the hours that previous prime ministers have spent on it. He expects to get by on a wing and a prayer, and on Wednesday he came badly unstuck.

You could argue that if a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service couldn’t win an argument on crime, then he had been in the wrong job, but even so, the Labour leader was clearly in command of his brief. He cited the statistics and systematically dismantled Johnson’s lack of detail. It was almost as if Boris didn’t see sexual violence as a genuine problem or its victims as real people. When, as a last resort, he suggested that the fact that Labour hadn’t voted for the government’s crime and sentencing bill was a sign the opposition was weak on rape, Starmer pointed out that the bill had done more to protect statues than women.

For the most part, Johnson was just shouty and defensive. He admitted that the percentage of prosecutions was far too low, but seemed totally oblivious to the fact that the cuts in policing and the courts had mainly taken place during 11 years of Tory government. Starmer kept inviting him to apologise and Boris kept ignoring him up until the moment when the Labour leader observed that the justice secretary had said sorry, so why couldn’t he? At which point Johnson muttered a half-hearted apology. Which is as close to contrition as he ever gets.

Boris’s day didn’t get much better in the remainder of prime minister’s questions. First he had no answer to the SNP leader Ian Blackford’s allegations that the government had redirected Covid recovery money towards polling on Scottish independence, and then he had to face down two hostile questions from the Conservative backbenchers Andrew Mitchell and Esther McVey. Though neither has much loyalty to, or affection for, Johnson, it was telling that they now feel strong enough to challenge him in public. Like some other Tories, they are beginning to wonder if the government hasn’t become rather too accident-prone with Boris as prime minister.

Nor could you blame Helen Whately, a junior health minister, if she too wasn’t secretly wondering if she had had enough of Boris. Because straight after PMQs, she was sent out to answer an urgent question on the government’s plans for reforming social care. Which wouldn’t have been such a problem if Johnson – when he first became prime minister – had not assured the country that he had detailed plans ready to go.

There again, Whately is not without ambition, so she did what had to be done, which was to take one for the team and make herself look half-witted with her replies. Social care was a big, big problem, she said, and one the government was committed to solving. Though not to the extent that Boris, the chancellor of the exchequer and the health secretary could find time in their diaries to discuss it. Just wait until the government had dealt with the pandemic and then it would definitely get round to thinking about when was best to make plans to start thinking about it.

Liz Kendall, the shadow care minister, gently pointed out that the pandemic had nothing to do with it as Boris was adamant that the nonexistent plans definitely existed. Schrödinger’s social care. So why not just come out and tell the Commons instead of keeping the plans to herself? After all, it wouldn’t have been at all like Johnson to lie to the nation. Whately shook her head. Boris had sworn her to secrecy and everyone, including her, would just have to wait until the plans were revealed. They would probably be ready in the autumn, she added. She didn’t say which year.

It might have been no fun being made to look dim, but at least Whately knew why she was there. Which was more than could be said for the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, best known for supplying electricity to his stables on taxpayer expenses, who appeared to have no idea why he had been asked to front the first Covid press conference for weeks.

Zahawi spoke hesitantly, as if the words on the teleprompter were strangers to one another, hoping that at some point the reason for him telling people everything they already knew would become clear. Vaccines are good, he said, over and over again, until he was put out of his misery nearly an hour later. He’d have made more of an impact if he’d just riffed through the chorus of Britain’s new North Korean anthem for schoolchildren. Then again, so would Boris.

The Guardian

Leave a Reply