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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:58pm

Boris Johnson isn’t very good at this, and four other things we learnt from PMQs

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson isn’t very good at this

Michael Gove once told Andrew Gimson, Boris Johnson’s biographer, that Johnson’s great gift as a speaker was his ability to emulate a “child in a nativity play”, by appearing to struggle to get the words out. The audience, as with a child, wills him to succeed and shares in his triumph.

The approach works well on panel shows and in televised debates – but in the House of Commons, where half of those listening (at the least) do not want him to succeed, it doesn’t work at all.

He committed a surprising rookie error by shouting into the microphone – watching in the chamber itself, you can see why, because it is incredibly noisy, but on television it looks terrible – which you’d expect from a relatively green frontbencher like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who did the same yesterday, or Jeremy Corbyn in his early days as leader,  but it is unexpected from someone who has served in a series of frontbench roles on and off since 2004.

Does it matter? Well, not as far as the week-to-week struggle for dominance in the bubble is concerned. There are two important parts of these exchanges: the first is their ability to make a good clip for the six and ten o’clock news, and the second is their ability to be turned into shareable packages on social media. He did neither well today, which may be a problem in the long term.

Team Corbyn’s Johnson optimism might be right

One thing that Johnson and Corbyn have in common is that neither are natural parliamentary performers and they don’t think that well on their feet, but Corbyn does clip well for Facebook (it’s just dull to sit through if you have to listen to all six questions).

But Johnson managed to make Corbyn look good. I can think of occasions where Corbyn has managed to come out on top as a result of a rhetorical trick or a bad news week but this must be the first time that Corbyn has gone for detailed cut-and-thrust and managed to win overall.

Corbyn’s inner circle believed throughout the leadership race that they would be better off facing Johnson than Jeremy Hunt or any of his other rivals. On this evidence, they may have a point.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit position doesn’t look seaworthy

Part of the reason why Corbyn did well today was that Johnson did badly, but the other part was his chosen topic: the details of Johnson’s new negotiating priorities for Brexit.

The argument Johnson wants to make in the looming election is that he is inches away from a brilliant new deal, if only he could convince the European Union he is serious about no deal.  

The problem here is that it invites the question “Ok, what exactly does this brilliant new deal look like?” And at the moment he can’t answer that because the answer is “A big fat load of nothing.”

Can that hold throughout a long election campaign? That Labour would prefer the election to be about other topics might mean that it does – but you wouldn’t bet on it.

Settled status is going to become a running sore for the government

Johnson appeared not to be across his brief when Jo Swinson asked a searching question about one of her constituents, a European citizen who has been struggling to get her status as a settled resident despite having lived in the United Kingdom for 45 years.

The Home Office’s inability to manage its caseload, which led to Amber Rudd’s resignation as home secretary over Windrush, hasn’t gone away. Almost every backbench MP has a case like this cross their desk, and the Home Office’s management of the scheme has the potential to become a real political problem as well as a policy disaster.

The Conservatives need some dividing lines on issues other than Brexit

One reason why all things being equal, the prime minister ought to be able to salvage a draw from PMQs is that they get the last word. The leader of the opposition gets six questions, five of which the prime minister has to at least do an impression of answering.

But after the sixth question, there’s no follow-up, so the prime minister of the day can just get away with unloading a series of barely-connected talking points about their political strengths and the leader of the opposition’s political weaknesses.

Being prime minister is a very difficult job but the sixth answer in PMQs is a very easy one – you always ought to be able to land this. There will be weeks when it doesn’t matter, because the other five questions have gone so badly, but if you cannot come up with a plausible dividing line here, something has gone awry.

It may be that simply bellowing about Brexit is enough, but the lack of strong dividing lines to draw on issues outside of the European question may come back to haunt Johnson at an election.

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