“Are you a liar, Prime Minister?” asked Ian Blackford during Prime Minister’s Questions. Most of us would take a nanosecond to ponder that one. Boris Johnson seemed perplexed. Perhaps he was grappling philosophically with whether a true liar could answer anything other than “no”.
Instead, he huffily suggested the Speaker might rule on whether the words were in order. It is against the Commons rules to call an Hon Member a liar, or a fibber or two-faced or whatever, so the PM had good reason to hope Blackford would get a finger-wagging from the chair.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle was not playing ball. “Can I just say, unfortunately, they’re in order,” ruled the Speaker. “But were not savoury and not what we would expect.” He then referred to Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, as “Ian” and invited him to ask another question.
This barbed little dance spoke volumes about how little this Prime Minister is appreciated in Parliament. It came shortly after a full-throttle, hands-round-the-throats duel between Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer that reinforced the impression that the PM’s attitude to being held to account in the House is akin to Amazon’s enthusiasm for paying taxes.
Starmer the QC was on top form, laying carefully-worded traps in his questions. Starmer the politician was also excellent, baiting the PM with colourful scorn, dubbing him “Major Sleaze”.
Labour’s leader began with the media reports that Johnson said he would prefer to “let bodies pile high” than have another lockdown. “Could the Prime Minister tell the house categorically, yes or no, did he make those remarks, or remarks that effect,” asked the QC.
“No,” bellowed Johnson in a categorical reply. The PM looked nervous of facing a former DPP a year ago, but he sought to turn the tables. “The Right Honourable gentleman is a lawyer ... if he’s going to repeat allegations like that he should come to this House and say where he heard them and who exactly is supposed to have said those things.”
Johnson then made some grown-up, prime ministerial comments about what was going on when he is alleged to have said the words. “They were very bitter, very difficult decisions … because no one wants to put this country into a lockdown with all the consequences that means: for loss of education, for the damage to people’s life chances, to the huge medical backlog that it entails.”
Round One appeared to go the Prime Minister, after that clear denial and emotional flourish. But the QC looked smug, dropping a hint that the defendant had blundered into a trap. “Somebody here isn’t telling the truth,” he said, reminding Johnson that the Ministerial Code requires the resignation of any minister who knowingly misleads Parliament. “I’ll leave it there for now,” he mused, oozing menace. “There will be further on this, believe me.”
The QC moved on to a more dangerous issue. “Who initially - and, Prime Minister, ‘initially’ is the key word here - who initially paid for the redecoration of his Downing Street flat.”
Johnson responded with a volley of political bullets, none of them silver, ranging from Starmer backing the European Medicine Agency to incorrectly claiming Sir James Dyson was a personal friend of the PM, to Labour councils charging more Council Tax. Mixed in there, the PM slipped out: “As far as the latest stuff that he’s bringing up, he should know that I’ve paid for the Downing Street refurbishment, personally.” That little word “initially” was simply ignored by the PM. Nobody missed that the tense he used did not preclude a late repayment or a loan from a Tory tycoon.
Starmer used to look exasperated when Johnson responded with bluster. But today he pocketed the defendant’s non-answer and played with him. “Normally when people don’t want to incriminate themselves they go ‘no comment’,” he needled. Patronisingly he reduced it to a “multiple choice”, saying the initial bill must have been paid by the PM, the Tory Party, the taxpayer or a wealthy donor. “There are only four options, it should be easier than finding the chatty rat.”
“I have given him the answer,” fibbed the PM, before sending up clouds of bluster again.
Starmer the politician stepped in to slap the prisoner with some stinging humour. The PM spent the pandemic “nipping out of meetings to choose wallpaper costing £840 a roll”. The QC asked if it was true that businessman Lord Brownlow sent £58,000 towards the project.
Johnson breezed, inaccurately, that he had “answered this question several times”, which of course he had not. “I have met the requirements that I’ve been advised to meet in full,” added the PM, a tortuous assertion that raised a potential defence, that he could have been ill-advised.
Starmer groaned. “Answer the question! That’s what the public scream at their televisions every PMQs.”
Johnson countered that what “strained public credulity” was an Opposition leader fixated on gossip instead of the pandemic, vaccines, crime and so on. “He goes on and on about wallpaper when, as I told him umpteen times, I paid for it!”
Labour’s leader ended with a polished soundbite about dodgy contracts and “a government that is mired in sleazy cronyism and scandal”.
Johnson finished with a verbal outpouring, delivered with a voice that rose in crossness and a face that grew redder. His peroration ran to 373 words - I counted them - and rambled from Dyson to Brexit to vaccines and how he was focused on “the people’s priorities” while Starmer was playing “political games”.
His delivery was somewhere between Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and Al Pacino in the final scene of Scarface. Some observers thought Johnson looked and sounded hysterical, and speculated the pressure is finally getting to him.
To these jaded eyes, it was a calculated performance designed to project passion and deflect from those guilty-looking evasions and non-answers. Johnson has survived all these years, not because of any brilliance at avoiding crises, but for his genius at wriggling out of them.
What we saw today is a Prime Minister wriggling with all his strength to get off a hook of his own making