It wouldn’t be prime minister’s questions without Boris Johnson being accused of telling at least one lie. Indeed, in recent months it has often felt as if Boris has taken a bet with Dominic Cummings to see if he can outdo himself on the lies of the week before. But normally Boris saves his biggest fibs for his exchanges with Keir Starmer. This time he reserved his top Trumps for London MPs concerned about planned changes to Transport for London and council tax.
Not that Starmer didn’t yet again comfortably get the better of Johnson: rather he seemed to have grown tired of a full-on assault on the prime minister, and decided to employ simple logic in an effort to get Boris to commit himself to something he might later regret. And in that he was extremely effective. Because it will be in only about a month’s time that Johnson will realise into just how much trouble he has unwittingly got himself. Though whether he will care is another matter. Like all narcissists, Boris lives only for the moment.
The Labour leader opened with a simple question: how does a region that gets put into tier 3 ever get out of it? Simple, said Boris. When the rate of infection falls below one. Fine, Starmer replied. Except that on current evidence there was no sign of the R rate falling below 1 any time soon. Only Cornwall and possibly the Isle of Wight currently had an infection rate lower than Manchester when it was in effect put into tier 2 measures back in July. And we all knew where Manchester was now.
What’s more, there were no guarantees those regions that had been put in tier 3 would be much better off than they had been before. Even the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser had said tier 3 restrictions wouldn’t be enough to lower the rate of infection. And as it had been proved already that almost every tier 2 region would inevitably end up in tier 3, the government was merely piling on months of agony with no exit plan.
This was the kind of straightforward logic that invariably defeats Johnson, and his telltale bullshit tics kicked in. The shouting, the waving of arms and the needy glances towards his own benches. “Um …” said Boris. He was reviewing each region every 28 days. Before keeping it precisely where it was. Why else would he have been negotiating a six-month deal for Manchester if he had imagined there was a cat in hell’s chance of the region having its restriction eased before then.
“Ah, Manchester,” Starmer segued easily. The prime minister who could waste £40m on a non-existent garden bridge and spend £6k a day on test-and-trace consultants didn’t seem to be able to find £5m for Manchester. Nonsense, Boris blustered. The Tories were one-nation Conservatives who brought the country together by pitting one council against another. Labour merely wanted to close everything down with a circuit break for months on end. AKA two to three weeks. At this Starmer zoned out. History would prove one of them right within a couple of months. And he was totally confident he would be history’s chosen one. Sometimes it paid to play the long game.
Relieved to have got off more lightly than he expected – spotting trouble coming down the track has never been his strong point – Boris went full delusional when challenged by three Labour London MPs and one Tory about the proposed shake-up of Transport for London and the responsibilities of Sadiq Khan, the London mayor. It was worse than listening to a child explaining how the dog ate his homework. Cringe-worthy.
It was also telling just how personal Johnson’s hatred for Khan is. He can’t stand the fact that Sadiq is more popular in London than him, nor can he bear it that Khan has unarguably done a better job than he did as London mayor. So Boris went into hissy-fit overdrive where one lie was immediately topped by another. Sadiq had bankrupted the city, he was personally responsible for the damage to Hammersmith bridge – at least when your own bridge is only in your imagination, you can’t do any damage to it – and Londoners deserved everything that was coming down the road to make their lives more miserable for having backed him.
None of which was true. According to TfL’s accounts, since Khan took over from Johnson in 2016 he has reduced the deficit by 71% and increased cash reserves by 16%. That TfL is now in trouble is entirely down to the pandemic. Not even Johnson’s own MPs could stomach these lies. Asking for the country’s trust during a national crisis when you can’t even tell the truth about an audited balance sheet is an uphill struggle. If the prime minister will lie about this, what won’t he lie about?
Still, though, Johnson wasn’t finished. Before the opposition day debate on Marcus Rashford’s proposals to extend free school meals throughout the holidays up until Easter, Boris was twice asked to take the proposals seriously. Twice he declined.
The thing about children that he had just discovered was that they didn’t actually need to eat during school holidays. Their metabolisms stopped. And besides, going hungry was the kind of character-building quality that the country would need in a post-Brexit, post-Covid world. It was as crass as it was tin-eared. Johnson has already caved in to Rashford once and the chances are that some time soon he will be forced to do so again. But when you are programmed to have all failures expunged from your memory, these are the kinds of mistakes you make.