A Boris Johnson on his own is generally a Boris Johnson in bad company. With no one to rein back his narcissism, megalomania and priapism, there is nothing between himself and his own self-destruction.
Yet, on the plus side, his time in self-isolation does free him up to play with his toys and keep him away from all the bits he most dislikes about the job: having to meet backbench MPs whose names he has no intention of remembering, or heaving himself into the car to get to parliament for a prime minister’s questions at which he is almost bound to come off second best, for example.
When Keir Starmer was recently forced to self-isolate, there was no suggestion of the Labour leader being allowed to ask his questions remotely. But in a matter of weeks, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the parliamentary authorities have been brought up to speed on the realities of 2020, so this session was the first time a prime minister was allowed to answer questions via a video link.
Not that No 10 seemed to have given much thought to how he might look. Boris appeared in front of a hastily erected Downing Street backdrop in what sounded like an echoey basement – either that or no one had thought to provide the crumpled Boris with a microphone and he had had to make do with his infant son Wilf’s baby alarm. Whichever it was, I’ve seen more professionally shot hostage videos.
What had promised to be a historic moment delivered little by way of highlights. With no audience, however small, to play to, there was no arm- or willy-waving from Johnson. Rather, he just sat through the whole thing, looking rather bored, with his hands clasped together on the table in front of him.
Starmer too looked as if his mind was elsewhere. Though in his case, it almost certainly had nothing to do with him adjusting to do battle with a screen. The Labour leader has a much tougher fight on his hands right now, with the party’s NEC having reinstated Jeremy Corbyn as a member and Starmer holding firm by refusing to reinstate the whip.
So it felt very much like a PMQs by numbers. A collection of greatest hits, rather than a sustained series of questions building to a lethal stiletto. Starmer started well enough, targeting Johnson’s Monday night piece of idiocy in which he had described Scottish devolution as a disaster to a group of Tory MPs on Zoom. Did he stand by those remarks? Johnson naturally sidestepped the question, choosing instead to rubbish the Scottish National party for ruining devolution for everyone.
It doesn’t appear to have occurred to him that the reason the SNP are in power is that they have been democratically elected. Nor that most Scots want to remain in the EU and resent being taken out of it by England and Wales. Every time he opens his mouth, he adds a few percentage points to the SNP cause. Or tens of percentage points if your maths is as good as Toby Young’s.
Starmer rather left it at that as Labour has as little interest in breaking up the union as the Tories and moved on to support payments for those asked to self-isolate. Was it any surprise that only 11% of people bothered to stay at home when they were being asked to get by on either £95 or £135 per week? Dominic Cummings’s champagne bill on a Friday night after getting fired.
Johnson went through the motions of pretending that Labour had only just come onboard with NHS test and trace before Starmer reminded him that the latest government lockdown had been won with Labour votes.
The final two questions on the National Audit Office’s report into cronyism and lack of oversight in the awarding of PPE contracts were by far the most enlightening. For the first time, Johnson looked vaguely rattled and twice resorted to calling the Labour leader “Captain Hindsight”, a sure sign he had lost the argument. It had been very difficult at the start of the pandemic, he said, and there had been huge shortages of PPE.
So it had only been thanks to Tory ministers and MPs coming through with names of friends of friends who might be able to help out for a sweetener of a few million that the country had been saved. If only Labour MPs had shown an equal willingness to compromise their ethics and come up with some suppliers who would fail to supply usable equipment then the UK might have survived the pandemic even more successfully.
And that was pretty much that. A largely bloodless encounter between two leaders, both of whom appeared relieved to have got through the session largely intact.
So for once it was the questions from the backbenchers that proved the more illuminating. The PM failed to commit to the government’s contribution to overseas aid remaining at 0.7% and he had absolutely no answer to why it was that the UK had the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe and the deepest recession in all the G7 countries. A look in the mirror might provide some clues. But then he would have to live with the PTSD the rest of us suffer on a daily basis.
There were also potentially awkward questions from two Scottish Tory MPs. But they weren’t out to get him for his remarks on Scottish devolution: they were there to extort money with menaces in return for not mentioning the devolution fiasco.
Douglas Ross said he was was grateful for the money coming Moray’s way but it would be nice if it could be phased in quicker than 15 years. Johnson nodded eagerly. As he did when John Lamont raised the topic of whisky tariffs. The cheques were already in the post.
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