It’s become a standard strategy for Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions, ever since he got mullered in their first few outings. Unable to cope with the detail of Keir Starmer’s questions, he lashes out with diversionary tactics. Either accusing the Labour leader of doing something he hasn’t done, answering a completely different question or playing to the non-existent gallery of Tory backbenchers.
There’s just one large spanner in the works. It’s not working. Because at every PMQs Boris merely reveals more of the true character he is trying to conceal. The thin-skinned, unprepared opportunist who cannot tolerate a word of scrutiny or criticism. It’s like dealing with a toddler. If you’re not 100% behind him, saying how marvellous he is, then you are totally against him. There are no in betweens. In terms of emotional development, Boris is barely out of nappies.
How else can you explain Wednesday’s performance at PMQs other than as a full-on narcissistic breakdown? Starmer had started by asking about the lack of sector-specific support for aviation. Boris was outraged. Labour had broadly backed the chancellor’s bailout plans for other industries last week, so why was Starmer now choosing to make a fuss about widespread redundancies and BA’s plans to fire 30,000 employees and rehire them on worse terms and conditions? This was just talking Britain down.
“The Labour leader says one thing one week and another the next,” Boris yelled, hammering on the dispatch box with his index finger in a temper tantrum. This was quite some cheek as in the last few days we’ve had Michael Gove telling the Commons that there will be expensive and time consuming post-Brexit border checks – just about the only thing we will “build, build, build” are lorry parks – after assuring the country we would still have access to the single market.
Not to mention Oliver Dowden reversing the decision to allow Huawei access to build our 5G network and poor Matt Hancock having to tidy up the mess the government had got itself into over wearing masks in shops.
Starmer looked justifiably angry but did his best to control his emotions and moved on instead to the report from the Academy of Medical Sciences that had warned the UK risked another 120,000 deaths from the coronavirus over the coming winter. Wouldn’t now be a good time to make sure that the government’s test-and-trace system was working properly?
Now Boris just leapt into the realms of fantasy. AKA pure Donald Trump. Our test-and-trace system was the envy of the world. The best there was. The very bestest, bigliest best. In which case the world might as well prepare for its end now as the test-and-trace figures are getting worse by the week.
Where once we were reaching 80% of the contacts – of the 25% of infected people we were managing to track – we were now down to barely 70%. At the current rate of decline, the whole system will be little better than guesswork in a few months. Or less if Mattbeth’s world-beating app makes an appearance in the meantime.
“He should be building up the system, not undermining it,” Boris said, apparently unaware that no one had done more to reduce public confidence in the government’s response to the pandemic than him. Dominic Cummings excluded. Because at every opportunity, the prime minister has done too little, too late, which is one of the main reasons why the UK death figures genuinely are world beating.
At this point, it dawned on Starmer that Boris almost certainly hadn’t read the report to which he had referred – a little slow on the uptake from the Labour leader as the prime minister never reads any reports of more than two paragraphs – so he asked him outright if he had. “Um ... er ...,” Boris hesitated. He was aware of the report. In the same way he is aware that he has children, but is unable to say exactly how many. And in the same way as I am aware of the space-time continuum but would be unable to explain exactly what the science meant to anyone. Though if it turned out that Boris only really existed in another parallel dimension then I’d happily settle for that.
The Labour leader ended by basically accusing the prime minister of lying about the success of his government’s response and wondering what he might like to say to the families of those who had died – and of those who would die in the future – as a result of his negligence. It was a serious, solemn question. And one that was treated as a joke as Boris responded by saying Starmer had “more briefs than Calvin Klein”. I’m sure that gave all the bereaved a good chuckle. The prime minister’s ability to misjudge the mood of the chamber is borderline sociopathic.
It had been yet another Johnson PMQs rocky horror show. A travesty of its true purpose and an insult to the country. People are dying. People are losing their jobs. People are terrified about the future. And yet to Boris it all still feels like a big game where the only thing at stake is his fragile ego. He did, when pushed by the Lib Dems’ Ed Davey, commit to a national inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic but not to any time soon. Certainly not in time to save any more lives this winter and certainly not before he has a chance to shift the blame on to someone else.
At times like these, we need a leader in whom to believe. What we’ve got is a prime minister who urgently needs a therapist.