Boris Johnson has a well-honed manner at Prime Minister’s Questions when he is in the ascendancy. He bounces into the chamber and beams at his loyal subjects on the Tory side, exchanging a nod or smile with a lucky few. He fusses with his hair and taps in childlike contentment on his preparation file as he volleys away Keir Starmer’s weekly questions, his back benches burbling in support.
That was the tone of many a PMQs during the first half of this year, as Johnson’s public popularity rose in line with the vaccine roll-out. In April, 46 per cent of voters approved of him, up from a low of 34 per cent in November 2020.
Today’s PMQs was very different. Johnson grasped for a simple, pleasing story to tell – get your vaccine, protect lives, save the NHS – but faltered. Instead, he had an indefensible story to explain and defend. As he put it in an opening statement (which is unusual for PMQs): “I understand and share the anger up and down the country at No 10 staff seeming to make light of lockdown measures.”
“I can understand,” Johnson went on, crucially seeking to distance himself from the story, “how infuriating it can be that those who set the rules weren’t following the rules – because I was also furious.”
The story, you see, had nothing to do with him, and news of it shocked no one more than the PM himself, who apparently knew nothing of a Christmas party that took place in the house in which he works and lives.
That claim did not hold up well against Keir Starmer, whose approval rating has slipped throughout 2021, from 39 per cent in January to 24 per cent today (YouGov), but whose by-the-book style is well suited to this kind of prosecution. Starmer lacks wit, mischief and an easy charm – deficiencies that may prevent him from ever becoming prime minister – but this was a time to be stern.
Even before Starmer began, Johnson fumbled the softball “question” thrown his way by a loyal MP, mistakenly encouraging voters “to install a Labour council” in West Bromwich before correcting himself.
Once the questions began, Johnson slipped into his familiar style when scrutinised, adopting the tone of a put-upon boy dragged unwillingly to school. “I think the right honourable gentleman probably missed what I said in my statement,” Johnson feebly began after Starmer’s first question (“Millions now think the PM was taking them for fools. They were right, weren’t they?”)
“I apologise for the impression that has been given,” Johnson continued, half-heartedly, before getting to the central point: his own distance from the perpetrators. “I am sickened myself”, he assured the House. “There will consequences for those involved.”
“Surely, surely the PM is not going to pretend that last night was the first he knew of this,” Starmer asked, before revelling in an anaphora of criticism aimed at Downing Street staff: “They knew there was a party, they knew it was against the rules, they knew they couldn’t admit it. And they thought it was funny… Even Ant and Dec are ahead of the Prime Minister on this,” noted Starmer, referring to an excoriating clip, viewed 5 million times online, in which the two I’m A Celebrity presenters roast Johnson; the “Prime Minister – for now”, as Dec put it.
When some in the House laughed at his comment, Starmer wisely did not: he had graver points to make. He told a story, emblematic of many expressed online in the past 24 hours, of Trisha Greenhalgh – an esteemed professor of primary medicine at Oxford who did not see her mother before she died last December because she was following the rules, unlike Downing Street staff. Johnson could only look down at this papers and shake his head.
In reply Johnson, grasping for a line of defence, criticised Starmer for focusing on the events of a year ago rather than the need for greater vaccination across the UK today. Starmer was well-prepared. “But it’s not the events of a year ago is it? We may be in Plan B this afternoon,” he noted.
Starmer also noted the government’s silence on looming restrictions; Sajid Javid missed his scheduled TV appearances this morning, to avoid being grilled on the Downing Street party. “I see the Health Secretary has made it to the chamber,” Starmer remarked.
But the opposition leader landed his strongest blow with an appeal to decency. “This virus isn’t defeated. We are going to face other tests,” he said. “Her Majesty, the Queen, sat alone when she marked the passing of [Prince Philip], the man she had been married to for 73 years” – as that is what the Covid regulations demanded of her. She followed the rules, Starmer stressed, as he sought to skewer Johnson: “Leadership. Sacrifice. That’s what gives leaders the moral authority to lead. Does the PM think he has the moral authority to lead, and to ask the British people to stick to the rules?”
Johnson offered no reply that made any sense, blustering that the opposition had “done nothing but play politics” throughout the pandemic and accusing Starmer of trying to “muddy the waters, to confuse the public”. Starmer wisely did not react.
After a final question that allowed Starmer to reference his time leading the Crown Prosecution Service, Johnson offered a flailing, off-topic attack. The Labour Party, he thundered, wants to decriminalise class A drugs! Why not back our borders bill tonight? He demanded to know of Starmer (who was out of questions and replies) whether he would back life sentences for people traffickers! “That’s what the Leader of the Opposition should be doing,” he advised. In the manner of a fading king, he rejected scrutiny and demanded docile support.