It was the last prime minister’s questions of the current parliament and the last before next week’s local elections. So it was no real surprise that this session was rather more bloodless than many encounters in recent weeks. Even the Tory frontbench was decidedly a C-list event. All the big cabinet names had wisely decided not to turn up.
This was an occasion for party leaders to go through the motions – to secure their greatest hits soundbites – before battle resumes again in a fortnight’s time. But even a relatively low-wattage Keir Starmer can comfortably get the better of Boris Johnson these days. The Convict has become little more than a self-parody. The Fool’s Fool.
The Labour leader began with a brief reference to the claims that Angela Rayner had tried to distract Johnson by crossing and uncrossing her legs. Johnson insisted the Mail on Sunday story was untrue. No one cared more about eliminating sexist and misogynistic behaviour than he did. And when he caught up with the Boris Johnson who had described female athletes as wet otters and had suggested that patting women on the bottom was totally OK, he’d give him a piece of his mind. Rayner decided to let it go at that and gave the prime minister a cursory nod.
Thereafter Starmer used all of his six questions on the cost of living. How was it that the UK was predicted to have the lowest growth of any nation in the G20, other than Russia? And what was the government proposing to do to prevent inflation from spiralling even further out of control? The country was in a total mess and the only plan the Tories appeared to have was to change the MOT laws. This was a government that had so badly run out of ideas that it was relying on Grant Shapps to bail it out (having presumably already raided the brains of Priti Patel).
The Convict could only splutter, shouting out random words, only some of which made sense. A few backbenchers loyally tried to cheer him on, but most just looked a bit embarrassed. Predictably, the rants were laden with lies. Time and again Johnson has been asked to correct his assertions that there are 500,000 more people in work under his government. Yet he said it again. Compulsively. Needily. Shamelessly.
It was untrue. If you take in the self-employed then unemployment has gone up by 600,000. But Johnson is just blind to this. He continues to use the figures he wants. As if he is entitled to a truth of his own choosing. This was the 10th time he had repeated the figure in the Commons chamber. The Convict also claimed that the country would still be under lockdown if Labour were in government. So palpably untrue that no one bothered to dispute it.
That’s how Johnson rolls. One lie after another, until the boundaries between truth and fiction dissolve. Where everything exists only as moral relativism. That’s how Boris has justified his lies about Partygate. The events took place only in his own imaginary universe for which he alone is judge and jury.
“This must be the Oxford Union debating skills we’ve heard so much about,” said Starmer. Scorn is a useful addition to his PMQs armoury. Not so much a coherent argument from the Convict as a word salad. What the present government had to offer made the cones hotline look like a work of genius. In reply, Johnson could only describe the Labour leader as man “doomed to be a permanent spectator”. It sounded more like Boris’s next, enforced, hubristic career move.
Things became rather more uncomfortable for the Convict when Caroline Lucas pointed out that 56 MPs, including three cabinet ministers, were under investigation for alleged sexual harassment. Was that grounds for dismissal under the ministerial code, she asked. Even if lying and bullying apparently weren’t.
She might also have included the minister whom female Tory MPs had reported to the chief whip for watching porn on his phone in the Commons. Just think how stupid you have to be to do that in a place where you can be observed from almost every angle? And televised. Actually, scrub that. It’s only too easy to imagine some MPs being dim enough to think they could get away with it. Or not even being aware of the risks. A triumph of antiwokeism. Or just getting on with the job in hand. As it were.
Johnson sounded far from convincing as he said everyone found guilty would be fired. First off, he would be left with plenty of gaps in government, and second, he’s hardly the person to lecture anyone on sexual propriety. The Convict was the man who had sneaked off work as London mayor for pole dancing lessons. Though he had, at least, done that in the privacy of someone else’s home.
The rest of the session rather petered out, though not before Johnson had further embarrassed himself. Were he self-aware enough to be capable of shame. First he remarked that it was odd that the Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, wasn’t in the Commons to represent his constituents. This from a man who has literally done everything in the past week to avoid scrutiny from fellow MPs. He followed up by lying about when he had known that Covid could be transmitted asymptomatically. To deny responsibility for 20,000 care home deaths in March and April 2020, when China had been warning about asymptomatic transmission as early as January, was shabby even by his standards.
Come the end, Michael Fabricant stood up to make a point of order. He wanted it on record how thrilled he was to have been included on a list of 287 MPs – some of them no longer MPs – who had just been sanctioned by the Russian government. Nothing he had ever done before in his life had given him such self-worth. The rest of us thought this was the most sensible thing the Russians had done in years. If only we could do the same and keep Mickey Fab out of the UK.