Another PMQs, another tone deaf performance from Boris Johnson. Last week, he appeared to belittle Keir Starmer’s concern over low rape conviction rates as mere “jabber”. This week, he seemed to dismiss anger over Matt Hancock’s Covid rule breach as “Westminster bubble” chatter.
In both cases, allies of Johnson say such attacks are unfair as it was clear he was hitting back at Starmer rather than the issues he raised. Well, upto a point, Lord Copper. In failing to separate out the issues, with the change in register needed for each, the PM has no one to blame but himself for the criticism.
Starmer has long been advised by older hands on the Labour benches to mix up his bowling speed, shifting from fast balls to slower off-spin, and it worked today. By contrast, Johnson stuck to his usual attack-as-best-form-of-defence tactic, and it failed.
First, the Labour leader ridiculed Johnson’s claim to have sacked Hancock a day after keeping him (Starmer must have been tempted to accuse the PM of being ‘Captain Hindsight’ on that one). Then he changed the tone to raise the fury of the parents of a dying cancer patient who was denied hospital visits the week before Hancock broke the social distancing rules with his mistress.
When Starmer quoted Ollie Bibby’s mother - “I’m livid. We did everything we were told to do and the man that made the rules didn’t” - Johnson should have spotted it was time to change gear himself and issue a heartfelt apology. If indeed he had sacked Hancock, as he implied, surely it wouldn’t be difficult to condemn his former health secretary’s actions?
Instead, the tone deaf PM gave a perfunctory answer about sharing the grief of families like Ollie’s, before launching swiftly into his charge that Starmer was raising matters that were the stuff of the ‘Westminster bubble’. Yet the whole point about the Hancock story was its reach went way beyond that bubble, that’s precisely why Tory MPs successfully pressured him to quit.
It wasn’t just the jaw-dropping photos and video of Hancock in a clinch that ensured this story cut through outside SW1 (the test is always whether the WhatsApps of MPs’ non-political friends pick it up and boy did they in spades). It was the simple, rank hypocrisy of the man who set the rules breaking them.
Add in the contrast between his workplace affair and the deadly seriousness of people forced to miss funerals, and this was way bigger than a bit of bubble trouble. The PM sounded like a man who believed the political wound had healed after just four days, but Starmer picked at the scab to reveal what lay beneath.
All those couples whose weddings have been reduced to small events, or whose family and friends have been barred from hugging or dancing at a reception, won’t have seen the Hancock clinch as hilarious. Wrecking your own marriage is a personal car-crash, wrecking thousands of other marriages while snogging your lover is public policy suicide.
The Hancock hypocrisy charge is also attaching to Johnson too. Brides-to-be are furious that the PM can have a garden party to watch the football but they can’t have a proper wedding reception. You can’t sing in church, but you can sing Three Lions in a stadium. You can’t go on holiday, but rich businessmen can arrive from abroad without quarantine.
Johnson’s failure to adapt his PMQs responses will fuel Labour’s charge that his complacency proves the Tories are a tired party that have been in power for too long. But it also risked a total lack of empathy that will worry his MPs more, especially when the PM’s X-factor has been his ability to channel and give voice to voters’ concerns.
And given he already has a reputation for being economical with the actualite (to quote the late Alan Clark), trying to spin his way out of an obvious failure to sack Hancock was ill-advised.
On Tuesday, the SNP’s Ian Blackford got into trouble with the Speaker when he declared: “The truth and this government are distant strangers, and that should come as no surprise when we remember the prime minister has been sacked not once but twice for lying.”
Now it’s demonstrably true that Johnson was fired from the Times for making up a quote and later as a shadow minister for denying he had an affair. So when Speaker Hoyle urged a retraction from Blackford, saying “as we know, hon. Members would never lie”, it’s no wonder the SNP leader in Westminster ignored the plea and carried on regardless.
The other problem for the PM is that he’s now made a habit of using misleading statements in PMQs. Refusing to correct the record over his false claim that Labour voted against an NHS pay rise is one thing. But his consistent misuse of statistics is another entirely. And today there was yet another warning from the statistics watchdog about his statements about child poverty.
As we revealed on Wednesday, the UK Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) has written once more to get Johnson to use the right definitions, after he claimed last month that “we are also seeing fewer households now with children in poverty than 10 years ago”. The watchdog pointed out that while this may apply to ‘absolute’ poverty, the figures for relative poverty had got worse.
Most embarrassing to No.10 is that the regulator revealed it had raised this topic privately with the PM’s Downing Street briefing team, and still he kept on making statements that failed to show the full picture. There are clearly lies, damned lies and child poverty statistics.
It may just be down to Johnson’s slapdash nature, or to his failure to shift out of attack mode. Either way, he gives the impression of a PM who just can’t handle the truth. If he’s not careful, over time, the voters may decide on a sacking of their own.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.