Boris was resurgent at PMQs today. He sprinkled scorn, merriment and mischief in all directions. He even boasted that last night’s Plan B crackdown was a Tory triumph that had not been won with Labour votes. Sir Keir Starmer (who also had a good day) clasped at his hair in incredulity. ‘He’s so far socially distanced from the truth that he actually believes that,’ scoffed the Labour leader.
Boris is surrounded by cabinet plotters who are not without their qualities. Liz Truss has nice hair. Rishi Sunak looks like the perfect son-in-law. Priti Patel’s mean streak may win her a few votes. But that doesn’t add up to a leader tough enough to come out swinging after a sustained blitz orchestrated by the media and abetted by droves of disillusioned backbenchers. Today, an unbowed Boris reminded the party that his challengers are untested novices. He’s been a street-fighter for decades. He knows about winning elections. He knows about getting re-elected too.
He accused Sir Keir of playing politics with the pandemic, and he boasted that Tory policies have created the fastest growth in the G7. Some may have lost faith in the PM but he still believes in himself. When Ian Blackford was called the entire Commons gave up a groan of anguish. It was like the howl of a packed Wetherspoons when the TV link fails during a Premier League nail-biter.
The SNP man had his begging bowl out, as usual. He likes to characterise Scotland as Oliver Twist although he personally seems better fed than Mr Bumble, the beadle. The ravening trencherman advanced his favourite complaint, ‘No new money for Scotland!’ he seethed.
Boris struck back with two blows. First a crowd-pleaser, ‘We’re going to need a bigger waste-bin to contain the synthetic indignation of the Rt. Hon. Gentlemen,’ he said. Then he mentioned the £41 billion subsidies offered to Scotland, and affected to apologise for his ‘indignation’ quip.
‘I’m actually quite cordial with [him] behind the scenes,’ he revealed. That could be disastrous for Blackford. Hobnobbing with Boris off-screen. Sharing wisecracks in the lobby. Having matey chats when the cameras are turned away. Blackford may have to rush out a denial or instruct his lawyers.
Backbencher Tom Tugendhat tried to make trouble over Foreign Office funding. Tugendhat’s secret leadership ambitions seem to have been mysteriously leaked to large parts of the media lately, and he alleged that the FO budget was about to shrink by 10 per cent. Boris conferred with Liz Truss and then stood up, smirking aggressively at the upstart behind him. ‘Whatever has trickled into his ears is, according to the foreign secretary, fake news.’
Sir Bernard Jenkin has plenty of scope to cause Boris problems if he wishes. But he handed the PM an early Christmas gift by raising the possibility that Russia may annex the whole of Ukraine (having already helped itself to Crimea in 2014).
Boris seized the chance to pose as a diplomatic genius. ‘As I told president Putin on Monday... this would be catastrophic,’ he said, as if his teatime chats on the hotline are the highlight of the President’s daily routine. He said that if Putin were to be ‘so rash or so mad’ as to invade Ukraine, Russia would face ‘a tough package of measures’. But of course, nothing would suit the PM better than a bust-up in eastern Europe between two powers that are not members of Nato and in whose disagreements Britain can only act as commentator and pundit. A full-blown Moscow-Kiev conflict would turn Boris into a superstar peace-keeper, jetting around the world and posing as the bridge between the warring factions while angling to win the Nobel Prize. Who knows? Destiny may yet furnish him that chance to shore up his plunging popularity.