Boris Johnson did not have a good Prime Minister's Questions. It was never going to be a comfortable session, given the multiple rows about the funding of the Downing Street flat revamp and his reported comments about letting bodies 'pile up'. But the way the Prime Minister approached it ensured both that the story will keep running and that he betrayed quite how annoyed he is by it.
It is little use trying, as Johnson repeatedly did, to argue that the British people are not interested in the line of questioning that Sir Keir Starmer was pursuing. For one thing, there is nothing like a politician claiming that something is 'boring' or a 'non-story' to make the media want to cover it all the more. For another, the way to make the flat row boring is to get all the information out there and get the story over and done with rather than allowing it to drag on. Johnson did not take this approach today, merely hoping that the appointment of Lord Geidt as the independent adviser on ministers' interests, announced shortly before PMQs, might soften some of the blows.
This was Starmer's ideal session: full of detail and obfuscation and the chance to pin someone down on their use of language. He opened by asking Johnson to deny whether or not he used that phrase 'let the bodies pile high'. He pointed out that there were numerous sources who had told broadcasters and the press that these comments did happen. The Prime Minister replied 'no.' He then demanded that Starmer bring real evidence of these comments to the House, saying that the discussions about lockdowns were 'very bitter' because shutting down the country was a 'miserable' decision. He repeated this demand for someone to go on the record about the comments when SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford asked similar questions later in the session. And then he tried to celebrate the success of the vaccine programme.
The Labour leader commented that 'somebody here isn't telling the truth', before moving onto the flat. He asked Johnson who 'initially paid for the redecoration of his Downing Street flat'. Johnson had a long ramble about the ways in which Starmer had misjudged complaints at previous sessions, before saying: 'I paid for the Downing Street refurbishment personally.' Again, he tried to move the topic onto something else, talking about council tax. Starmer continued to drill away, giving him a 'multiple choice' of who paid 'the initial invoice'. Again, Johnson did not answer this, complaining that Starmer was focusing on the wrong thing.
By the end of the exchanges, Johnson was clearly rattled rather than just trying to express theatrical dissatisfaction on behalf of the taxpayer. He tried to close his answers to Starmer with another long ramble but it looked very much as though he was trying to point to random distractions. The longer he keeps up these tactics, the longer the story will run — with a greater risk of it actually becoming interesting to voters.