PMQs was a warm-up today. The main event was Boris’s response to Sue Gray’s partygate report. Boris’s body language was sheepish as he sat through PMQs. He hunched in his place, head down, legs crossed, his meaty arms enclosing his ribs in what psychologists call a ‘self-comforting’ gesture. He was giving himself a bear-hug.
Sir Keir predicted that the Tories would shortly perform a U-turn on windfall taxes. Probably true. But Boris wanted it both ways. He derided Labour’s passion for confiscating the assets of big business.
‘You can feel the lust for tax rising off the benches opposite,’ he said luridly.
Ian Blackford delivered a long, tetchy speech which liberated enough warm air to fill a weather balloon. His style rebounded on him when he announced that Boris had outstayed his welcome. ‘Time’s up!’ he said. ‘For you!’ they yelled back. Then he whipped himself into a self-righteous frenzy and accused the PM of indulging in ‘drink and debauchery’ at Number Ten. Drink, yes. But debauchery? Where did that come from? The Speaker ignored the smear.
Labour's Andy McDonald referred to the picture of Boris raising a glass at a Downing Street knees-up. ‘Was he toasting his assault on the working class? How does he sleep at night with so much blood on his filthy, privileged hands?’
McDonald is perhaps not the best companion during a long train journey. Another slur zinged in from Christian Wakeford. ‘I know he’s has been busy drafting and redrafting his half-arsed apologies,’ fumed Wakeford.
‘Moderate language,’ said the Speaker emolliently, ‘is what we normally use.’
Then it was crunch time. Boris grovelled. He abased himself. He admitted that parties had been held in Downing Street for departing staff. ‘I briefly attended such gatherings to thank them for their service,’ he said. But his aim was noble. His presence statesmanlike: ‘to keep morale as high as possible,’ he wheedled.
Perfect leadership, that is. Only later did he learn that these parties had turned into all-nighters. And he was shocked, stunned and appalled by the revelations. He reminded us that Downing Street is not an ordinary two-up two-down terrace. It’s the size of the Mersey ferry with 5,300 square metres of floorspace available for drinking, dancing, spilling wine and vomiting.
‘I simply wasn’t there,’ he said.
Then he changed the subject and spoke of recent cabinet office reforms. Praising Sue Gray he told us how pleased he was to have read her wonderful publication. Pure bluff, of course. He wanted to pretend that Gray was a gifted management consultant whose long-overdue analysis of government structures had been commissioned by a Prime Minister of genius. He thanked her extravagantly for her searching remarks and invaluable suggestions about improving the Downing Street machine.
This threadbare defence was at least unexpected. Sir Keir couldn’t improvise a reply so he relied on a script prepared by his wonks. It was a low-energy effort. And the content, frankly, was weird. It centred on the famous black door of Number 10 that symbolises British democracy around the world. But why the door? Shutting the door on Boris? Opening the door to Sir Keir? Hearing the dormice snore as Sir Keir droned on?
Fury from the opposition wasn’t confined to Ian Blackford who stamped and raged and screamed like a garden-strimmer. He ordered the Tory rank and file to flood Sir Graham Brady’s mail-bag with no confidence letters.
Tobias Ellwood predicted that Boris would lose the next election for the Conservatives. If that’s his view, he should join the Labour movement and hitch his destiny to the coming man of politics, Sir Keir Starmer. At least someone in the Commons still treats him as a potential winner. Odd that it’s the Tory member for Bournemouth.