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Isabel Hardman

Johnson’s defence deteriorates

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That Boris Johnson regards the Gray update as an opportunity to come up for air was very clear from his statement on the report in the Commons. The Prime Minister's opening remarks struck what seemed to be a reasonable balance between apologising, offering some operational changes to No. 10 (to show he was taking the report's recommendations for 'learning' seriously) and trying to buoy up Tory MPs with a reminder of what his government was achieving. Brexit, freeports and the comparatively early end to Covid restrictions all came up. He might have been pleased with himself as he commended his statement to the House, but things went downhill after that.

The first deterioration in the situation came as Sir Keir Starmer gave one of his best speeches in parliament to date. It helped that this was familiar territory: the Labour leader treated his response as being a closing address to a jury, talking largely about the moral case for Johnson's premiership coming to an end and appealing to the better instincts of Conservative MPs. He quoted Margaret Thatcher on the duty of the government being to obey the law, adding:

I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me that this Prime Minister’s lack of integrity is somehow priced in and that his behaviour and character don’t matter. I have never accepted that. And I never will accept that.

Johnson's response to this marked another deterioration. It was in the same vein as many of his recent PMQs performances where he has decided to be high-energy and combative to show his own MPs he can fight his way through a crisis even of this magnitude. But it jarred with the tone of what had come before: he jeered at Starmer for being the director of public prosecutions who went after journalists and didn't prosecute Jimmy Savile. He said the Labour leader had constructed a 'tissue of nonsense', insisting that the report had not said what Starmer had claimed. He seemed at this point far too triumphant, too pleased that he has been given this breathing space.

He was once again helped by Ian Blackford, who decided to make his response all about him rather than the issue. The SNP leader ended up having a stand-off with the Speaker over his refusal to withdraw a comment that Johnson had 'wilfully misled' the House. Blackford repeatedly insisted he was standing up for his constituents by insisting on 'wilfully' rather than 'inadvertently', which would have been within the rules. Lindsay Hoyle eventually said he would have to suspend Blackford, who then said he was leaving anyway. This little spectacle at least encouraged Tory MPs to think about the opposition benches, rather than the mess on their own.

The campaign operation around Johnson has been very effective, with many backbench Tory responses in the chamber offering support. But this may not offer a complete picture of how MPs are feeling after reading the report and hearing Johnson's words. He is addressing the parliamentary party later today: the tone he strikes there could provoke much more serious drama than we've seen so far this afternoon.