Boris Johnson’s complete lack of shame has long been one of his defining narcissistic traits. His willingness to betray family, friends and colleagues for short-term personal gain is common knowledge. In much the same way, his lack of competence – his inability to grasp basic details – has also been priced in to the equation, as no one on the Tory benches much cared. It was just Boris being Boris.
But something has changed over the course of the summer. Johnson is no longer seen as a man with the winning touch. Quite the reverse, in fact. Many Conservatives are slowly waking up to the fact that he may be a liability. Many prime ministers have discovered that being in the top job requires a different skill and mindset to that of getting the top job.
The difference with Boris is that he shows no signs of being willing to learn how to adapt to the change. Rather, he appears to be getting worse and worse at being prime minister. Limitations that are increasingly being exposed in laziness, short-temperedness and forgetfulness.
Prime minister’s questions are often dismissed as a piece of performance theatre. Something only of interest to those inside the Westminster bubble. And there is some truth in that. But they also offer a window into a leader’s soul, revealing qualities such as empathy, wit, intelligence and humility.
And on all counts Boris is failing miserably: his inability to gauge not just the mood of the House of Commons but the nation also is borderline sociopathic. It is as if he is holed up in a bunker, surrounded by yes men – there are almost no women in Boris’s inner circle – telling him only the things he wants to hear.
By contrast, Keir Starmer is learning fast. His early outings at PMQs were never less than competent, but there was an awkwardness to them. As if he were working out how to play the role of a man who had been elected leader of the Labour party. But now we’re beginning to see the real man. His questions are just as focused, but there’s now an ability to think on his feet and to respond to the prime minister’s lies and disinformation with genuine incredulity, anger and – when needed – humour. At PMQs there’s only one person who looks fit to run the country and it’s not Boris.
Then it’s not as if the Labour leader hasn’t been spoiled for lines of attack on the prime minister, and predictably Starmer chose to go in on the exams chaos. Either Boris knew about the problem and chose to know nothing, or he didn’t know about it when he should have done. Simple question: which one was it? Just as predictably, Boris resorted to bullshit and bluster. Labour had never wanted children to go back to school in the first place. An outright lie, as Starmer had unequivocally given his support to students returning on several occasions in May and June.
After that, Johnson had a full-on meltdown. Even the few Tories in the chamber had the grace to look embarrassed. First Boris accused Keir of being anti-Brexit – as if having been a remainer meant you automatically wanted tens of thousands of people to die from the coronavirus and for the less well-off students to be downgraded in their A-level results. He then went on to accuse Starmer of being an IRA supporter.
This was too much both for the Labour leader and the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. In the past Hoyle has been reluctant to challenge Johnson when he goes off on a tangential mega-rant, but this time he was quick to rein him in.
Starmer looked understandably furious and reminded Boris that as director of public prosecutions he had pressed charges against many terrorists. He could also have pointed out that it hadn’t been him who had recently offered a peerage to Clare Fox, who had in the past given enthusiastic support for the IRA Warrington bombing.
“If he was a decent man, he would apologise,” Starmer said. But Boris isn’t a decent man, so he didn’t. Instead he continued to rush on his run. There would be no extension to the furlough scheme because it would merely encourage people to hang around at home doing nothing. As if the prospect of being made unemployed was a lifestyle choice for millions of workers.
Starmer ended by asking why Johnson was now refusing to meet the families of those who had been bereaved by Covid-19, having promised to do so on TV just days earlier. Remind me, was this the 12th or 13th U-turn in the past six weeks? Now was the time for Boris’s sad face. Or failing that, serious face. But he can’t do either, so he just smirked a little. The reason he wasn’t going to see the bereaved wasn’t because he cared too little but because he cared too much. Their stories might make him unhappy. And besides, it would be inappropriate as the bereaved were in litigation with the government. They weren’t, but what’s one more lie among so many?
The meltdown precipitated by Starmer continued for the rest of PMQs. Boris seemed to have no idea there were a huge number of industries such as aviation, tourism and hospitality that weren’t going to return to normal anytime soon.
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Nor did he know that Matt Hancock had just extended some local lockdowns at the very moment he was saying more people should be going back to work. One day, it might occur to Boris that some companies might not want to take a punt on their employees’ health by forcing them back before the workplace is properly secure. But today wasn’t that day.
Rather, it was the day for Boris’s carers to try to get him out the Commons before he did any more damage to either the country or the Tory party.
It was also a day for those watching PMQs to ask themselves what they had done to deserve a leader who is visibly falling apart week on week. There was never anything very clever about Boris: now there isn’t even anything funny. Of all the coronavirus joints, in all the towns in the world, he walks into ours.