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“The right honourable and learned gentleman is a lawyer, I am given to understand.” From the moment Boris Johnson tried to goad Keir Starmer over his legal background, it was clear he was out of his depth.
Calmly, methodically, craftily, Starmer built his case against the PM. On both Johnson’s alleged crass remarks about the Covid dead and his alleged attempt to funnel funds from Tory donors into his expensive refurb of the Downing Street flat, the Labour leader laid down questions like tripwires.
For his part, the PM proceeded to sound like one of those misguided defendants who, through ego or lack of funds (in his case, possibly both), choose to represent themselves in court. In their heads, they live out a fantasy of them defying the bewigged bigwigs and winning the day. The cold reality is often much more embarrassing.
Starmer devoted just one of his PMQs on claims that Johnson had said he’d rather have “bodies pile high” than implement a fresh lockdown last October. And the double-edged question was not just whether those words were used, but whether he uttered “remarks to that effect”. Johnson said “no”, while admitting these were “very bitter” decisions.
There was more than a hint of menace when Starmer reminded the PM of his obligation to resign if he’d knowingly misled parliament. His line that “I will leave it there for now” felt ominously like he did indeed know something more. Will a civil servant or adviser go on record? Is there indeed a recording of the remark?
The rest of Starmer’s interrogation went on the Downing Street refurb, and Johnson decided to answer questions he wasn’t asked (always a bit of a “tell”) or simply waffle the clock down. Clearly prepared, the Labour leader had a subliminal reference that Line of Duty fans instantly recognised. “Normally when people do not want to incriminate themselves, they go, ‘No comment’.”
Quizzed directly on suggestions Lord Brownlow had been asked to donate £58,000, the PM just ignored the question. At that point, Starmer could simply have issued the police warning seen in countless TV cop shows. “You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court.” He didn’t, but there was no mistaking that the PM sounded like he’d failed to give the whole truth and nothing but.
We all know Starmer can do the legal eagle stuff brilliantly, but it’s often said that his court career was based on persuading judges, not juries of the general public. Yet this PMQs saw him combine the case for the politics with the case for the prosecution, mixing the rough and the smooth.
Jibes about £840-a-roll wallpaper and Tory peerages mingled with points about rising crime and NHS waiting lists. Somehow Starmer resisted the temptation to end with a line from The Sweeney, often uttered when louche criminals are caught in bed with a lover: “Get your trousers on, you’re nicked!”. But he did have a riposte to the Captain Hindsight attack, finally declaring Johnson was “Major Sleaze, sitting there”.
Despite all the prior trigger warnings, that line certainly seemed to get under Johnson’s skin, sparking him into a rare, red-faced rant that included a wobbling wordcloud of phrases like “European Medicines Agency”, “Super League” and “Vote Conservative on May 6”. Confected injury and fake anger is often a tactic in PMQs, but this felt all too real, as the close-up photos confirmed.
It was a reminder that Johnson’s less flattering biographer, Sonia Purnell, once wrote of him: “He can change from bonhomie to a dark fury in seconds. His normally jokey demeanour flashes into a sarcastic snarl, his skin reddens and blotches, his eyes dart into an intense narrow glare.”
Every word of that description was on display. Having spent years cultivating the persona of a loveable rogue, being seen as a malevolent rogue was not a good look. No wonder Starmer had a silent smile on his face, as Johnson turned into a parliamentary version of the 1970s TV show The Incredible Hulk (mild mannered scientist David Banner famously says “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry”).
He recovered himself in time for Ian Blackford’s questions. It’s worth noting however that when asked directly if he was “a liar”, his first instinct was not to deny the charge. Instead, he asked the Speaker if it was in order, then questioned the evidence for it. Only after those avenues were out of the way did he come up with his defence, a carefully-constructed “I did not say those words” (leaving open that he could have said similar words).
Johnson wasn’t the only person who seemed to have snapped. The usually phlegmatic Speaker Hoyle seemed exasperated, as evidenced by his decision to allow the procedure committee to look at tightening the rules on how “perceived inaccuracies could be corrected” more quickly by ministers.
Still, the PM has a history of getting away with his gift for inaccurate precis (a phrase Mary Archer famously used to describe her husband’s loose relationship with the truth). It’s hard to predict just where the “cash for cushions” row, or the more toxic cronyism charges over the pandemic, will end up.
The danger is that he will end up fighting on too many fronts. As I’ve said before, it’s the charge of incompetence not immorality that often makes voters weary of a government. That’s why the more wounding line from Starmer in future PMQs could be this: “I see the prime minister has been promoted, Mr Speaker. He’s not just Major Sleaze, he’s now General Shambles.”