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Well at least we know Boris Johnson is still with us. It has been quite extraordinary how low profile he has been since last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Even at the best of times, the country expects to see its prime minister pop up on the news from time to time, and these are not the best of times, they are among the worst.
Accepted, he has recently been ill, and he has also added to his child tally, both events that will have taken something out of him, and will tap into his normally quite formidable levels of energy. But he is also the leader of the country’s government as it faces what the cliché-mongers all agree is the greatest challenge since the Second World War.
This morning, Johnson having persuaded the Queen to grant a knighthood to Captain/Colonel Tom Moore, was the first time since last week’s PMQs that he had made news on his own account, as it were. And let’s be frank, installing yourself at the head of a campaign to get an honour for a centenarian who has raised forty million quid walking round his garden, and won over the hearts of people around the world, goes down on the “not very difficult” side of the prime ministerial ledger.
PMQs goes down on the harder side of things. I can remember Tony Blair’s first PMQs, and he was nervous. Even after a decade of experience, he was still nervous the last time. It was perhaps part of the nervousness that he wore the same pair of shoes every time he stood up to answer questions from MPs.
Whether Johnson gets nervous or not, I have no idea. But he should do – for two reasons. First, because he has thus far shown himself not to be very adept at the Despatch Box, and advance anxiety is an important factor in getting the work done to help him make a success of it; and second, because his new Labour opponent looks like he has been preparing for it all his life.
Even Johnson’s best friends and media cronies (some of them are the same people) would recognise that last week Keir Starmer got the better of Johnson who was making one of his rare trips to the Commons chamber, preferring as he does scripted addresses from behind a mahogany desk.
With all the time he has had to prepare in the intervening period, one might have imagined that Johnson would have been better prepared this week. He wasn’t. Instead, it would seem he has decided that attack is the best form of defence, and the goal he set for himself seemed to be to raise doubts about the legitimacy of critical questioning from the Opposition. We even had the use of the T-word – tone – which Health Secretary Matt Hancock had also used in exchanges with Labour frontbencher Rosena Allin-Khan. And he couldn’t resist joining forces with the ultra-Corbynites who have decided that the best criticism to make of Starmer is that he is “forensic”. It looked to me like Johnson trying to turn a strength into a weakness, as we did when William Hague was Tory leader, and in reminding him constantly how good at jokes he was (and how bad at judgement) we managed to get him to stop being so funny. I don’t think Starmer will so easily be pushed off the forensic approach, not least as he seems to be framing some of the key questions for the independent public inquiry Johnson will do everything he can to avoid having.
What tone, one wonders, does Johnson expect of a Labour leader? “May I begin by congratulating the Prime Minister on leading the UK into one of the top three positions, alongside the US and Brazil, in the world death league tables; and can I encourage him on behalf of the Opposition to join with Messrs Trump and Bolsonaro, his fellow populists, in continuing to ignore those who pretend their handling of the crisis has been anything but perfect?” He gets enough toadying questions from his own backbenchers without expecting Labour to have to join in.
Added to which, Starmer appears to have settled on a tactic of divorcing his own opinions from the subject matter, and relying instead on what one might term witnesses for the prosecution. Better to have a doctor condemning the continuing charging of immigrant frontline care and NHS workers for the privilege of looking after our elderly. Better to have the chief executive of Care England quoted as saying, on testing and tracing: “We have had the announcements; what we have not had is the delivery.”
That one line encapsulated the approach of the Johnson government. At heart a journalist, Johnson is more interested in the next story than seeing whether the first one turned out to be right or not. He seemed annoyed that Starmer asked him twice to state whether a proper testing and tracing system would be in place by early June, and Johnson did that old dismissal tactic – “He has stuck to the question he had planned rather than listen to the answers.” But no. I think Starmer has already shown that he does listen to answers, and he was making sure that one was very firmly on the record.
Both in the Commons, and at the ministerial briefings in Number 10 (hard to work out these days why they are held there given the PM has decided no longer to attend) ministers appear to want a round of applause for all their hard work. They appear, as Johnson did yesterday, puzzled and irritated that anyone could think they had at any stage done anything wrong in their handling.
Johnson had more energy than last week, and had decided to play to the gallery even though it was necessarily small. I sense he is also starting to notice that Starmer doesn’t give much away when he is sitting there, doesn’t easily rise to baits, and certainly holds people’s attention as he speaks.
Johnson is missing the full benches and the cheering and the yah-booing. He needs to get them back soon. Because Starmer is showing a different way of doing things, and in a crisis as grave as this, it might catch on … detail mattering, past statements checked and challenged, serious and sober rather than blustering and flamboyant. Johnson tried a fair bit of bluster, but I’m not sure it was as effective as it once might have been.
One thing is for sure – PMQs really matters again.
Alastair Campbell is a writer and strategist.