Isabel Hardman

PMQs: Johnson comes out fighting

PMQs: Johnson comes out fighting
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Today's PMQs was as dramatic as you might expect. It began with the spectacle of Bury South MP Christian Wakeford being cheered as he crossed the floor to the Labour benches. Sir Keir Starmer was in a joyful mood, as you might also expect. What was striking was how energised Boris Johnson was in his responses.

Johnson will have had a couple of minutes to prepare for a session about the shock defection of one of his own Red Wall MPs, and he clearly had decided that the best way to deal with this was to fight his way through the session rather than appearing sorrowful. He shouted across the chamber that Bury South had gone Conservative for the first time in a generation under his premiership and that it would return to the Tories at the next election too. The trouble for Johnson is that while Wakeford accepts the first assertion he has clearly calculated that the prediction about the next election isn’t true, hence his defection.

A high-energy approach to PMQs isn’t without its risks: the Prime Minister is close to boiling point even before difficult questions are asked. This was proven by Johnson losing his cool and shouting that Starmer was ‘irrelevant’ and ‘wasting people’s time’. He continued to lean heavily on the need to wait for Sue Gray to conclude her investigation into Downing Street parties. Later, he was scolded by the speaker for trying to force Starmer to withdraw a question about the royal family.

Starmer had plenty of time to prepare, unlike the Prime Minister, and had come with plenty of lines, including that at least Downing Street staff know how to pack a suitcase — after the now infamous report that a suitcase full of wine was wheeled into No. 10 — and that the Tory ‘chief whip has told [Conservative MPs] to bring their own booze’. He was helped out not just by his own backbenchers, including Diana Johnson who had the memorable line that the Prime Minister was trying to convince people he was ‘stupid rather than dishonest’, but also by Conservative MPs. 

David Davis became the latest Tory to call for Johnson to go, saying: ‘I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday he did the opposite of that.’ He then quoted Oliver Cromwell via Leo Amery speaking to Neville Chamberlain: ‘In the name of God, go.’

Johnson did have plenty of cheers behind him, but notably from those on the government payroll rather than general backbenchers. He might feel relieved that he didn’t make things worse in today's session in the way he’d managed to in yesterday’s broadcast clip. But PMQs also showed us how difficult it is going to be for him to make things better, particularly once the inquiry he is telling everyone to wait for has concluded.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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