For the last few days, the Commons has been unusually tranquil, with ministers and MPs going out of their way to be polite and cooperate with one another. Partly because there have been so few people in the chamber that the theatrics lose their edge, but mainly because MPs of all parties are genuinely terrified by the scale of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cheap point-scoring feels like a waste of time when people are dying by the thousands every day.Needless to say, though, that all changed with Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions.
It’s not just the defensive, combative tone with which Johnson treats the session: that is perhaps understandable given that he has a lot to be defensive about and Boris’s first instinct when under pressure has always been to lash out and blame others. What really sticks in the throat is the lack of regret and remorse in his voice. His inability to accept any blame for his government’s response to the Covid crisis is borderline sociopathic.Johnson began with a quick U-turn. On Monday he had said there was no “clamour” for 24/7 vaccinations. Now he was telling us they would soon be piloted.
But it was when Keir Starmer ran through the recent government timeline that Boris resorted to bluster and outright lies. He appeared to have forgotten that Matt Hancock had told the Commons about the new variant two days before Boris had announced there would be no lockdown and Christmas would be going ahead as usual at PMQs.
Since then the government had consistently done too little too late, and Johnson was unable to explain why this third lockdown was less severe than the first one when the pandemic was now even worse.Perhaps the weirdest exchange took place when the Labour leader moved on to free school meals and Johnson merely accused Starmer of being worse at pointing out how crap the government had been than Marcus Rashford. Not the greatest defence of government policy. Keir had done his homework, though, and pointed out that the £30 free school meals worth about a fiver were more or less in line with the Department of Education’s own guidelines. Give or take a tin of sweetcorn.At which point Boris gave up on not answering questions and went into a long rant about Labour’s failings that the Speaker had to interrupt and call to a halt. This hadn’t been a vintage Starmer performance – he still struggles rather when Johnson basically ignores him – but it had been enough to expose most of the prime minister’s more disturbing pathologies.There were fewer hiding places on offer for Johnson during his two-hour appearance before the liaison committee – the supergroup of select committee chairs – as he faced more detailed questions on his handling of the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU. Though obviously that did not stop Boris from engaging in his favourite pastime of endless pointless digressions designed to disguise his lack of straight answers.Not that Johnson didn’t appear to have made more effort to come prepared to this meeting of the committee. Now that Dominic Cummings is off the scene, it feels as if his new team of advisers in No 10 have been telling him he needs to do more preparation for these events.
Mostly in just being more polite and trying to appear interested in what he is being asked. His standard response to most questions about coronavirus was that the vaccine will sort things out eventually. He had less to say on his government’s track record over the past 10 months, as he has invariably done too little, too late. His desperate need to be loved by not imposing restrictions may well have accounted for thousands of unnecessary deaths.When push came to shove, Johnson again disowned his government’s own guidance on free school meals and agreed with both Robert Halfon and Catherine McKinnell that what had been provided by some contractors had been pitiful. He also appeared not to hear McKinnell enquire if he regretted having once said that Donald Trump should be awarded the Nobel peace prize. Perhaps even Boris struggles to believe he could ever have said anything so absurd.Labour’s Stephen Timms managed to extract an inference that the £20 uplift in universal credit would not be extended beyond April, but as so often it was Yvette Cooper who really managed to get under his skin. There is no love lost between the two and Johnson is self-aware enough to realise that in a straight fight he will always come off worse.
So he opted for damage limitation as Cooper challenged him on his lack of action on both the South African and Brazilian variants.Right now, Cooper observed, it was possible for anyone to fly into the UK from both these destinations and travel onwards by public transport without a negative coronavirus test. Or indeed with little chance of anyone checking whether you self-isolated once home.
Boris merely muttered ‘we’re taking steps’ over and over again before mentioning the vaccine yet again.After which the fait accompli of Britain’s exit from the EU felt more like an afterthought. Hilary Benn pointed out that many supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland were empty due to the increased bureaucracy.
Boris somehow managed to contradict himself by saying the flow of goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland had never been so smooth which was why goods were flying off the supermarket shelves, but that any ongoing problems would soon be sorted out.
Let the good times roll.Thereafter the session rather petered out. Not least because Bill Cash was so full of praise for the man who had rescued the country from the evil empire of the EU that the only question he could muster was: “Please tell us why you are so wonderful.” Something Johnson was happy to do at length.
After all, that is his favourite subject.