02/09/2020 22:29 BST | Updated 03/09/2020 08:27 BST

Boris Johnson Talks About Confidence, When Competence Is What The Public Really Want

The PM needs to grasp the new normal, after another win for Starmer.

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Confidence trick?

“What the people of this country want to see is their representatives back on their seats as fast as possible in the Palace of Westminster,” Boris Johnson declared in PMQs.

The PM was trying to ridicule a Labour MP for appearing via video link, but to the onlooker it felt more like a desperate plea for help: if there were more bums on seats in a “normal” chamber packed with roaring Tory backbenchers, perhaps Keir Starmer wouldn’t look like he was winning every week.

Without the sheer wall of noise an 80-strong majority can give a sitting premier, Johnson has for some months now been stripped of the safety net he could previously use whenever he was exposed on the floor of the House. And with a maximum of 50 MPs allowed at a time, it’s been much easier to hear the Labour leader’s courtroom cross-examination.‌

So far, so predictable. What was different this week however was that Starmer channelled some genuine anger (after the PM accused him of somehow being pro-IRA). Moreover, Speaker Hoyle had decided Johnson could no longer get away with such cheap shots when he was being asked about serious matters like the summer exams fiasco and serial U-turns.

Proving just how better prepared they are these days, Labour then went on the attack, pointing out that it was Johnson himself who had allowed a peerage for Claire Fox, the ex-Brexit Party MEP whose former Revolutionary Communist Party had praised IRA terror just days after the Warrington bomb killed 12-year-old Tim Parry.

The worrying thing for Tory MPs may well be that the PM has himself become predictable, but not in a good way. He simply didn’t look like he had put in the prep needed for this bout with Starmer. His lines about his opponent being a Remainer, being iffy on the IRA and simply being ‘Captain Hindsight’ on Covid all fell flat because they sounded like the evasions they were. And in a socially distanced Commons, they were applause lines without the applause.‌

Those who fear Johnson really is suffering from memory lapses due to ‘long Covid’ would not have been reassured when he claimed that Starmer’s belief that “school is safe” was the first time he had said so in PMQs. He had in fact said so in June 24. If the PM isn’t putting in the work and is forgetting basic facts for PMQs, is he putting in the work and forgetting basic facts in running the country?

The schools jibe felt like Johnson was also trying to fight the last war (he did have some success in making Starmer squirm earlier this summer on the reopenings), not the coming one. But even an attempt to repeat the trick, suggesting Starmer was equivocal over a return to the workplace, didn’t land either.

As it happens, I’ve been passed a memo from Unite the union to its HQ employees, from chief of staff Andrew Murray, which sets out why they should “return to office-based working as from September 1”. “Hundreds of thousands of our members have been working in workplaces throughout, and more are returning every day. It is therefore time, given the government relaxation of restrictions, that the union was back in the office too,” the memo (sent at the end of July) stated.

Sadly for Johnson, he didn’t have that memo as ammo. But even if he had, he had no evidence that Starmer is opposed to people going back to Covid-secure workplaces. Moreover, it’s his own cabinet ministers like Matt Hancock and Grant Shapps who have been saying what matters most is how well workers are performing, rather than where they are located.

Johnson would also dearly have loved to deploy the ‘culture war’ weapon of the Proms saga, but news of the BBC’s own U-turn on singing the lyrics to Rule Britannia came too late. Yet even on this Starmer is far too shrewd to gift him a dividing line, his spokesman telling us that he liked the “pomp and pageantry” of the Proms and the Beeb had finally made the right decision.

It was on furlough however that the PM himself sounded most vulnerable. His flip line that the millions on the scheme were “languishing” “in suspended animation” felt like an echo of the ill-judged claims that furloughed staff are just “sitting” at home. Many of those workers feel like they’re living on redundancy death row, not living it up with pina coladas.

Johnson’s most jarring line though was that “an ounce of confidence is worth a ton of taxpayers’ money”. Breezy confidence from a leader only works if the public are, well, confident in their leader’s competence and the recent U-turns (not least the Bolton/Trafford lockdown) have undermined that far more than anything his critics could say.

In his meeting with 2019 intake MPs, the PM kept saying he wanted to get back as close to normal as possible as soon as possible. That impatience for former certainties was telling. Yet a return to life before Covid looks as likely as a return to life before Starmer. Instead of going back to the future, Johnson is going to have to come up with new ways to deal with his new twin realities.

Quote Of The Day

“I do think this country is going through an orgy of national embarrassment about some of the things that other people around the world love most about us.”

Boris Johnson on someone else’s U-turn for a change: the BBC’s on the Proms

Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told Tory backbenchers his Budget plan “doesn’t mean a horror show of tax rises with no end in sight”. But many suspect he will impose temporary hikes, just as Labour said a recession is the wrong time to put up taxes. Therese Coffey even said tax cuts could actually increase a tax take.

Roger Taylor, chair of schools regulator Ofqual, told the education select committee that Gavin Williamson had unilaterally decided to scrap exams this summer. It had also briefed No.10 on August 7 of the risks to disadvantaged students of an algorithm model.

The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (already dubbed FOCADO) was launched with Dominic Raab warning he would not ditch the 0.7% GDP aid policy. “We are here, day one, we are committed to it, it is in law, it is part of our manifesto.”

The GMB trade union is “institutionally sexist”, a damning independent report has found.

Senior Tory MPs lined up to oppose an extension of hybrid working for the Commons to November, with ex minister Steve Brine declaring: “We are living a lie..we have never worked harder, but we are not working hard here in SW1.”

Growing numbers of Labour MSPs in Holyrood are calling for the party’s leader in Scotland Richard Leonard to step down amid dire polling ratings that put the SNP way ahead in next year’s election. Leonard hit back, suggesting his critics should be deselected as candidates.

What I’m Reading

Here Comes The Real Recession - Axios

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