Boris Johnson rose to the despatch box at today’s PMQs a dead man man speaking. Fifteen members of his government had resigned before PMQs began; two more would join the backbenches by its end. Still more have resigned since.
Johnson’s authority has been crippled. His time as prime minister is coming to an end. His premiership becomes more farcical by the minute. And Johnson shares in the joke. He finds it funny like the rest of us, perhaps even tragic as well. Starting PMQs with the routine response, “Mr Speaker, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others,” he broke off, laughing at the absurdity of it all, considering how many of those colleagues are now calling for him to go. Eventually, he finished the sentence: “I expect I will have further such meetings later today.” It was confirmation, if anyone needed it, that Johnson will not resign.
What about Keir Starmer? Would Starmer play it straight, or delight in the plight of his squirming interlocutor? The Labour leader’s fate remains unclear as the findings of the Durham police investigation loom, but that didn’t prevent him from delivering a poised, cutting performance. He began by reading the victim’s account of Chris Pincher’s alleged sexual assault, as Tory backbenchers sat in stony silence. Starmer went on to examine the Prime Minister’s promotion of Pincher to deputy chief whip, asking, simply: “Why?”
Each of Johnson’s answers met with silence from the benches behind him. Mark Harper, his arms crossed, standing at the entrance to the chamber, shook his head with contempt as the Prime Minister failed to deny referring to his disgraced former deputy chief whip as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”. Johnson was forced to resort to resurrecting tired talking points and cheap jibes. As PMQs progressed, he looked increasingly desperate and isolated.
Throughout Johnson’s performance, Sajid Javid, whose announcement that he was standing down as health secretary last night set off the chain of resignations, sat on the backbenches leafing through his House of Commons embossed papers. He was preparing to deliver a statement on his resignation, and effectively launch what will presumably be his leadership bid. When Javid took the floor, his speech was a calculated lament designed to protect his reputation for integrity after remaining in Johnson’s cabinet for so long. He sought to burnish his credentials, extolling the virtues of modern Conservativism. He piled opprobrium on his former boss below. “Enough is enough,” he said, as his colleagues nodded along.
As Javid delivered his speech, Johnson sat twiddling his foot, looking on with a smile, seemingly unperturbed. When Javid sat down to pats of congratulations from his colleagues, the Prime Minister – for now – briskly exited the chamber to shouts of “Bye, bye, Boris!”.
[ See also: Boris Johnson to resign – what happens now? ]