When MPs started their 10-day Whitsun holiday, the Prime Minster seemed to be slowly recovering, not only from his lengthy coronavirus fatigue, but also was giving a sense that the Government was taking charge of events.
Lockdown was being eased and the worst of the pandemic peak was passing.
The peace was shattered by the shocking revelation that Johnson’s most senior and controversial advisor Dominic Cummings drove 260 miles at the peak of lockdown from his London home with his family, carrying the virus to a second home in County Durham. And that they went on a jaunt to beauty spot Barnard Castle on the highly dubious grounds that he wanted to check his eyes were ok to motor home to London.
Since then, nothing has seemed to go right: Tory MPs piled into the national outpouring of fury about Cummings, their anger a tad more forceful than Downing Street was prepared for, which suggested some exasperation with the Johnson style of leadership (as exemplified by the continued presence of the maverick Mr Cummings); next the launch of the critically important test and trace system was marred by missing data and reports of bemused tracers having no clue what was going on; then came Conservatives rebellions against Priti Patel’s quarantine plans and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ill-explained demands for MPs to vote in person at Westminster.
A weary looking (and don’t forget he has a new baby Wilfred to contend with in the small hours) held the line in a grilling by the Liaison Committee but he looked besieged.
In addition, there are suspicions among MPs that some of the Government’s medical and scientific advisers feel uncomfortable with the rush to unlock social activities and schools, given the failure of the Covid “alert status” to float down from Level 4 to Level 3 at the weekend.
If a week used to be a long time in politics, then the past fortnight must count as an epoch
If a week used to be a long time in politics, then the fortnight since the PM last had to endure a grilling in the House of Commons must count as an epoch.
When the Prime Minister stands up in the ancient chamber just before midday on Wednesday, he will be aware that a significant number of his own backbenchers (and a few ministers) have been unnerved by the setbacks and are looking to him to provide strong, clear messages, both on public health and on the Tories’ core political pitch that they share the values of ordinary families.
Mr Johnson is actually rather good at delivering a prepared message and putting a smile back on the faces of dispirited footsoldiers. He is less good, however, at answering detailed questions under pressure, which is where Sir Keir comes in.
From their first, telling exchanges five weeks ago, it was clear that the new Labour leader was more of a siege commander than a charging cavalry officer. His persistent and patient questioning worked best when he cornered the Prime Minister into areas the Government is frightened to talk about, like the appalling and avoidable death toll in Britain’s residential care for the elderly.
In their first two encounters, Starmer ruthlessly gave the PM no wiggle room by pinning him with precision questions – and was proclaimed clear victor in both. Their third clash saw Johnson slip out of Starmer’s grasp and turn the tables on his attacker. One of Johnson’s best assets is an ability to get the measure of a new enemy and adapt.
So what can we expect in the fourth round of Johnson v Starmer?
We can expect Starmer to focus his attack on the allegation that the Government has lost its grip on the pandemic and, thanks to Cummings, forfeited its moral authority. He may probe about whether the PM has been over-riding cautious scientific advisers. He will certainly try to drag the spotlight onto past mistakes.
Johnson will be equally determined to focus on his optimistic hopes for the future. Starmer’s best tactic is to draw Johnson into a discussion of the fine detail where the Tory leader is most likely to trip up.
But Johnson’s skills are not to be under-rated: He has the knack of speaking in a way people understand as well as the prime ministerial secret weapon, which is to reveal a big daisycutter policy announcement that sucks the oxygen from Sir Keir’s attack.
The stakes are high for both leaders: For Mr Johnson, his best hope of stabilising the Tory Party after a torrid 10 days is to dominate the exchange and exude confident authority; For Sir Keir it is a chance to deepen the divisions in the governing party and ratchet up his own reputation.
But do not expect a knockout victory for either contender: with the next election some four years away, this will be a long and wearying war.