This was it. Boris’s career was on the line at PMQs. Would he finally beat cake-gate or would he get hit in the face with a huge cream pie? As soon as Sir Keir mentioned cake, Boris brushed it aside.
‘I think he’s in a Dr Who time-warp,’ he said. ‘We had this conversation yesterday.’ He added a trite expression of regret about his fixed penalty notice. And he shortened it to ‘FPN’ which sounds obscure and harmless.
It was a big risk to mention Dr Who and time-warps. Sir Keir had the chance to punish this flippancy by leaping on his high horse and claiming that the PM was treating breaches of Covid rules as a joke. But Sir Keir stuck to his scripted plan and asked the PM to confirm that he’d broken the law. Boris spoke carefully: ‘I humbly accept what the police have said’.
Another chance for Sir Keir to unpick the wording. To declare that you accept ‘what the police have said’ is not the same as to admit, ‘Yes, I broke the law.’ Did Boris believe the cops were wrong and he was right?
Sir Keir let that chance go as well. But the cake issue was still there. Still available for him to pursue. And yet, incredibly, he moved away from the biggest embarrassment of Boris’s career and turned to an issue that Labour has never identified with: the Church of England.
Overheard chatter at the 1922 committee meeting on Tuesday has stirred a lot of noise about the PM’s attitude to Justin Welby. The archbishop of Canterbury, according to Boris, has been reluctant to criticise Putin and has preferred instead to trash the government’s plans to repopulate Rwanda with migrants plucked from the Channel.
What a knotty, multi-layered issue. And what a gift for Boris. No more cake. No more fines and fixed penalty notices. Just a controversy about who said what to whom during a private meeting of Tory MPs. And at the centre of the issue is a prelate who appears to think the Church of England is a think-tank and that Easter Sunday marks the date of their annual press conference.
‘Apologise to the archbishop of Canterbury and the church of England,’ ordered Sir Keir.
Boris just ignored that. And Sir Keir dug even deeper into the reported tittle tattle from the 1922 committee and attacked the PM for criticising BBC journalists. Boris turned puce and started to jump and squirm in his seat. He looked outraged but secretly he was overjoyed. The whole cake issue had been junked. Now he was being accused of discourtesy to his fellow hacks. Easy to deal with. And a chance for him to reclaim the high ground.
‘I said nothing of the kind,’ he fumed at Sir Keir. ‘He should withdraw what he just said – as it has absolutely no basis in truth.’
Who is advising Sir Keir? With the PM’s career in peril, he chose to use the Church of England and the BBC to get Boris out of trouble. Sir Keir’s inner team should face a no-confidence vote.
Opposition backbenchers tried to fling cake at Boris too. Many sounded angry. Most sounded principled. One ambusher, Richard Thomson, over-reached himself.
‘Voters want this Pinocchio prime minister to pack his bags and go.’
Tory hooligans screamed for this slur to be retracted. The Speaker agreed. ‘Pinocchio is not acceptable,’ he ruled. The comment was withdrawn but not before the yobs on the Tory benches had yelled and shrieked a lot more. They well understand the value of a new controversy to eclipse cake-gate.
Boris declined to answer the call for him to resign.
‘I don’t know what his question is because he’s withdrawn it,’ he said, as flippant and careless as ever. Cakegate may not be dead. But Boris believes he’s survived it.