Kicking off his inaugural session of “People’s PMQs” – much like the analogue version of PMQs, only livestreamed on Facebook and even more dependent on planted, softball questions – Boris Johnson made a sly dig at MPs that told us as much about his government’s strategy than any of the answers he gave on policy.
“MPs,” Johnson explained to his tiny audience of around 7,000 viewers, “are off on holiday”. In their absence, he – very much not on holiday, as the government’s messaging has emphasised – would take the public’s questions “unpasteurised and unmediated”.
Those he took, of course, were nothing of the sort: rather than engage in any real back–and–forth, the prime minister instead rehearsed his favourite talking points on Brexit (to be delivered, deal or no deal, on October 31), the NHS (it’ll get some more money), crime (he’ll be tough on it), infrastructure spending in and devolution to the regions (there’ll be more of it), and the Union (this government likes it).
The significance of that offhand and inaccurate comment about the summer recess – which, for many MPs, is as busy a period of work as any point in the parliamentary term – was drawn out by the answers that followed, particularly on Brexit. Johnson accused MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit of “collaboration” with the EU, and explicitly blamed their opposition for the fact that Brussels has not, and will not, entertain renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. Signing off, he cited the Athenian statesman Pericles as his political hero: a democrat who governed “for the many, not the few”.
Much like Theresa May did in 2017, Johnson is casting himself as the victim of a recalcitrant EU abroad, and a Parliament determined to do its bidding and thwart the government’s Brexit at home. The crucial difference, however, is that the incumbent prime minister is much more likely to end up in the bind May disingenuously complained of when she called her snap election. Downing Street, and just about everyone else in Westminster, anticipate that Johnson will end up in the same place, as much as he insisted today that voters did not want to endure another electoral event. The messages Johnson is choosing to put to the public in the month before that flashpoint are simple: MPs are at fault.