When Boris Johnson starts a sentence with “the honest truth is”, it’s probably time to check FullFact’s twitter feed.
The PM froze as if he had blundered into a glass window and pondered what to say. “The honest truth is I cannot remember when I last spoke to Dave,” he said.
It wasn’t a great response. The use of “Dave” reminded us that Boris was part of the same chumocracy before they all fell out over Brexit. The apparent amnesia sounded a little too convenient for Labour MPs who hooted in unison.
It was a good day for London Labour backbenchers. Vicky Foxcroft had the PM nonplussed by switching into British Sign Language to ask why there was no interpreter for deaf people at Government briefings. Startled by the sudden silence over a video link, Johnson stammered: “I will revert to her as soon as I can.”
Ms Foxcroft really needs no interpreter. Teeth bared, eyes flashing, lip curled into a sneer, nobody watching TV with the volume turned down would fail to guess she would be happier questioning the PM with a baseball bat.
Sir Keir Starmer also had a good day. The Greensill Capital furore was the sort of open goal that invites Opposition leaders to mess up, to run up too hard to the penalty spot and trip over the ball. However, Starmer was pitch perfect, laced with hard-edged crowd pleasing humour.
"Does the Prime Minister believe that the current lobbying rules are fit for purpose?" he started softly
Johnson conceded: "I indeed share the widespread concern about some of the stuff that we’re reading at the moment.” What an artful phrase “some of the stuff” was, suggesting feint disgust about something the cat dragged in that nice people didn’t need to discuss in detail. Johnson said it was a good idea for civil servants to talk with business but conceded “it’s not clear that those boundaries had been properly understood”.
Starmer stepped things up. Every day there was “further evidence of the sleaze that’s now at the heart of this Conservative Government. Does the Prime Minister accept there’s a revolving door, indeed an open door, between his Conservative Government and paid lobbyists?"
Recognise the language? It was lifted straight from Tony Blair’s 1995 playbook when New Labour used the word “sleaze” to demolish the Major government’s reputation after brown paper envelopes and cash for questions. All we need is for Boris to launch “Back to Basics” and there might be sex scandals as well.
Johnson described his Government as “consistently tough on lobbying” and accused Labour of having “voted to repeal the 2014 Lobbying Act” in their last manifesto.
Starmer was ready with a one-line riposte about the Act: "And where did that legislation lead? Two years later, David Cameron camping out in a Saudi desert with Lex Greensill having a cup of tea.” Starmer added, with a pleased swagger: “I rest my case.”
Johnson launched another missile at Labour. “He is being advised by Lord Mandelson of Global Counsel Limited,” said the PM in the shocked tone of Captain Renault discovering gambling going on at the casino. “Perhaps in the interest of full transparency, Lord Mandelson could be encouraged to disclose his other clients?" Not much chance of the yacht-loving Prince of Darkness complying with that.
Starmer had seen this coming."I haven’t heard a defence that ridiculous since my last days in the Crown Court,” scoffed the ex-DPP. “It’s called the shoplifters’ defence – ‘everyone else is nicking stuff so why can’t I?’ It never worked."
Johnson ignored the next question about Greensill and came back with another attack on Labour. "He asks about lobbying on behalf of Greensill and, again, I don’t wish to embarrass (Sir Keir), but he doesn’t have far to look.” This referred to the shadow defence secretary, John Healey, who pressed for Greensill to get Covid-19 help.
Labour’s leader gave him short shrift, saying Healey acted as a local MP not as a paid adviser. He floored a Tory heckler with a grin: “If you think that’s a good point, you’ve got real problems."
This is was refreshed version of Starmer, funny, deft, pointed and thinking two steps ahead.“You couldn’t make it up,” he jibed, claiming the legal firm that the inquiry chief worked for had campaigned to relax lobbying rules. “Dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates, this is the return of Tory sleaze.”
Sir Keir won the exchanges – how could he not given the material? But did Johnson crawl away, defeated? Not a bit. The PM stood at the crease relaxed as a Sunday afternoon village player.
Someone seems to have told the PM that whatever is said in the Commons, nobody in the real world is paying attention anyway.