Boz the Bluster. Can he fix it? On the evidence of his latest outing at prime minister’s questions, the answer is a categorical no. Right now you wouldn’t trust Boris Johnson to get himself dressed in the morning, let alone get dragged around the park by Dilyn the dog.
Six months into his term of office, he already looks a spent force. A man desperately playing catch-up as he tries to respond to events that are out of his control.
“We are the builders, you are the blockers,” he said, towards the end of his reply – if you can call it that – to Keir Starmer’s final question. “We are the doers, you are the ditherers.”
Even the most loyal Tory backbenchers in the chamber looked to be taken aback by that. Labour had not had anything to block – even assuming they wanted to – as the Tories had not built anything in the past decade. And when it comes to dithering, the prime minister has elevated it into an art form.
Dithering is what Boris does best. He is a man who wants to be liked, someone who tries to keep his failings and infidelities hidden to avoid any unpleasantness or confrontation. So the decisions he does make are invariably made too late. Take coronavirus; while other countries were going into lockdown, Boris just let things roll for another 10 days, waiting on a miracle that never came.
Partly because he didn’t want to be responsible for the upheaval that would follow, but also because he didn’t want Carrie to have to cancel her baby shower at Chequers.
Since easing lockdown restrictions, Johnson has opted for a “whack-a-mole” strategy of targeting localised outbreaks. It’s also the new tactic he has adopted for PMQs. Only in this instance it is him that’s the mole. Boris would never admit it in person – far too proud and narcissistic – but part of his subconscious appears to have accepted he has met his match in the Labour leader.
In his previous outings against Starmer he has run through all the familiar defensive tropes from his Oxford Union debating repertoire – scorn, sarcasm, bluster, answering a different question – but has on every occasion been comprehensively outplayed. So all that’s left to him is to try and play dumb by sticking his head out of the hole and hope he can scamper back for cover before he gets whacked.
Unfortunately, Boris is not the most nimble on his feet, and he’s as bad at “whack-a-mole” PMQs as he was at all the others. Six times he put his head above the parapet and six times he got clobbered. It was going to take more than a couple of paracetamols to deal with the headache. He was facing an entire afternoon on a morphine drip.
Starmer opened with the Leicester lockdown. How come it had taken so long to introduce the new restrictions when there had been evidence of a local spike 11 days ago? Boris went into full blame mode. He had actually noticed the rise of infections back on 8 June and had sent more testing units to the city but unfortunately the people of Leicester had failed to act as they should have done. The government was socially distancing itself from its people.
That wasn’t quite true, the Labour leader observed. What had actually happened was that the government hadn’t shared the pillar 2 tests – the drive-through and self-testing – with the local health authority so no one in Leicester had a clue just how bad things were.
In fact the mayor of Leicester had confirmed exactly that on Wednesday morning. Boris had no answer other than to burble and bumble. A tell-tale sign that he was lying.
Thereafter it just got worse and worse for him. Starmer invited him to indulge in self-reflection – never Johnson’s strongest suit – and say sorry for having been so flippant the previous week in urging MPs of seaside towns to “show some guts” – a comment that had provoked a major incident in Bournemouth with an influx of 500,000 people to the beach.
“Pifflepaffle, people have to act responsibly,” he said. Right. Just as Dominic Cummings had acted responsibly on his Durham safari.
The rest was just white noise. Boz the Bluster couldn’t understand why Labour wasn’t giving him more applause for the 25% of people it was managing to reach through its “world-beating” track and trace system rather than negatively focusing on the 75% of people it was missing. It’s hard to know which is the icing on the cake right now: the mothballed app or the track and trace system. All that is clear is there’s not much in the way of cake to put any icing on.
So it went on as Boris appeared to disintegrate, completely losing touch with any semblance of reality. The £5bn infrastructure project he had announced the day before had miraculously expanded overnight into a £650bn spending programme. That’s inflation for you. “There will be plenty of wonderful things,” he said, with characteristic penetration. The future was going to be like a bumper edition of the Generation Game, with towns across the country fighting over who was going to win the cuddly toy.
Nor could Johnson offer much hope on jobs. Other than the hope that companies in the hospitality and services sector should try not to make people redundant. Still, look on the bright side. If all businesses in the entertainment industry did go bust, then their employees could retrain as apprentices and “build, build, build”.
Boris was left to mouth empty, three-word Classic Dom slogans. And Tory MPs were left to wonder why they had never previously noticed that their emperor had no clothes.