There were no knock out blows at PMQs today. But there rarely are. What must be troubling backbenchers and ministers is that the PM is not just up to it. Without the howling and jeering from the mob behind he is naked and alone. He has never been a great debater. He has never been deft on his feet. His style is simple. Bluster. Fluster. Bully. Answer a different question. Not answer a question. Make a joke. Use a long word. Use a word nobody has heard of. Make up a word. Bang the despatch box. Shout. Accuse. Pass the buck. Make a promise that he isn’t sure that he can keep. Pluck a figure out of the air and make it policy. And when in real trouble lie. This is the way Johnson has always operated. I am not sure he can change. It is as if the swashbuckling Flashman character is now more buckle that swash.
The lie which will haunt him is that he replied to Starmer’s letter offering cooperation on the opening of schools by a telephone conversation. Last week that was a holding answer to save his skin. This week he repeated the lie. Very, very foolish. All telephone conversations are monitored at Number 10. Any conversations with the PM will minuted by a civil servant if not digitally recorded. It is a matter of record that the last one to one was before the letter. And that the subsequent telephone conversation was with party leaders. All of them would have records of this. So somebody is lying. Either the PM or Starmer. Maybe both. It’s a big story either way. It will break by the weekend.
What I found fascinating about last week’s little skirmish was the look on Starmer’s face when Johnson came out with this. It just said, “the bloody man knows that this is untrue and he knows that I know. Does he really think that he can get away with it?” The sad answer to all of these questions is“yes”.
What riles Johnson and makes him explode in exasperation is that Starmer is so dammed reasonable, so accommodating and gives the impression that he wants to put party politics behind him and work in the national interest. Worse, he condemned the tearing down of the Colston statue saying that it would have been better if it had been taken down by democratic means and placed in a museum. If he hadn’t adopted this line it would have been an own goal as Bristol council is Labour controlled. With the added spectacle of a former DPP not supporting the rule of law.
The right wing press will say that Johnson has now got the measure of the man and the whips will, no doubt, trot out the usual suspects on the media to say how in control he is. And that to day was some sort of victory. But he isn’t and it wasn’t. Backbenchers know it and ministers know it. And there are mutterings. But nothing can or should be done. Yes, he bit, scratched, plotted, betrayed, smeared and lied to get to Number 10. His punishment is to remain in office until the crisis is over. But he will never fight another general election.
We used to say that watching Cameron versus Brown at PMQs was as cruel as bear baiting. That Brown was a terrible disappointment as PM. Both are true. But the difference between Brown and Johnson is that Brown knew how to show leadership in a crisis.
The Downing Street strategy is that a general election is a long way off. That they have a majority of eighty. But we are not over the crisis and decisions are becoming less based on science than political instinct. The Chief scientific advisors have been airbrushed as ruthlessly as any fallen member of the politburo atop Lenin’s tomb at the May Day parade.
I pray that there won’t be a second spike of the virus this winter. If there is God help us all in our health and our jobs. But even if there isn’t there will be an inquiry about the handling of this pandemic which will have to be published before any election.
The real problem for the government at the moment is a question that pollsters will ask the public soon. “Who looks and sounds more primeministerial”? At the moment it’s a no brainer. Johnson needs to get his act together. Now.