It started with a truly chilling description of the trauma caused by sexual assault. It ended with cries of “Bye, Boris, bye.” And between those two points, the pre-eminent display of British democracy in action veered between tragedy and farce, between genuine pain and thoughtless bluster, between trite platitudes and the kind of despair that lowers heads and deadens eyes.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer began by reading the witness account of one of the men groped by former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher last week – the scandal-straw that finally broke the backs of two of Johnson’s cabinet colleagues and triggered a Great Resignation that left lobby hacks desperately updating ever-changing spreadsheets.
The first to jump were Health Minister Sajid Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Tuesday evening. By Wednesday afternoon, the (provisional) tally was at 27 resignations, including five ministers who resigned en masse — Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister; Neil O’Brien, the levelling up minister; Alex Burghart, the skills minister; Lee Rowley, the business minister; and Julia Lopez, the minister for media, data and digital infrastructure.
While Starmer’s sober opening statement at PMQs was soon subsumed by the cut-and-thrust of quip and counter-quip so beloved of political commentators but often so detrimental to serious debate, it was a timely reminder of the pestilent culture that now defines Johnson’s Westminster.
Starmer did his best to sum up the seemingly endless spiral of scandal: “Awful behaviour, unacceptable in any walk of life, it’s there for all to see but he ignores it. It was the same when his ally was on the take from the lobbyists. It was the same when his home secretary was bullying staff. It was the same when taxpayers’ money was being abused and it was the same when he and his mates partied their way through lockdown. Anyone quitting now after defending all that hasn’t got a shred of integrity. Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ships fleeing the rat?”
Johnson resorted to his greatest hits in response: getting on with the job, helping a country in crisis, tax cuts (already heralded multiple times), Ukraine, Ukraine and, oh yes, Starmer and Labour would take the UK back into the EU. It’s a tired script that sounds now like it belongs to Act 1 rather than Act 3 of the Johnson tragedy.
Because really there was only one question to be answered during the whole sorry session and it fell to one of Johnson’s own to ask it. So up stood Conservative MP Tim Loughton, his face grim and unsmiling: “Does the prime minister think there are any circumstances in which he should resign?”
The Commons erupted but there was a note of hysteria on top because this is no longer a joke.
Johnson seemed unfazed: twisting casually from the despatch box, he seemed to smile in disbelief at the temerity of the question before invoking a mandate he has never fulfilled, and the long-suffering Ukrainian people – his fig-leaf of choice these days, it would seem.
“The job of a prime minister in difficult circumstances when he’s been handed a colossal mandate is to keep going and that’s what I’m going to do.”
It was a stunning admission: for Johnson, this is all about him – he has the mandate, he must keep going. Implicit in his answer was the belief that no, there are no circumstances in which he would consider resigning.
But then we already knew that, didn’t we? From Partygate to Covid and “let the bodies pile high” to proroguing parliament to breaking international law – the list of his faults, failings, misdemeanours and wrongdoing is the mother of all rap sheets, but not enough it would appear to force this prime minister to step down.
Or to force those who support him – those frontbenchers Starmer derided as “a Z-list cast of nodding dogs” who might deliver “the charge of the lightweight brigade” – to finally pull the plug on a prime ministership that has demeaned, diminished and damaged Britain.
One of the most poignant moments of this car-crash of a PMQs came from another Tory MP, Gary Sambrook, a member of the executive of the 1922 committee, the Tory Party’s governing body and possibly the only remaining hope for those seeking to crowbar Johnson out of No. 10 because it sets the rules on leadership challenges.
Sambrook said Johnson had been going around the tearooms privately criticising Tory MPs at the Carlton Club last week for not stopping Pincher from drinking too much.
“The Prime Minister constantly tries to deflect from the issue, always tries to blame other people for mistakes and there is nothing left for him to do other than take responsibility and resign,” he said to hearty applause from the opposition.
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle was having none of it and reprimanded this outrageous display – because clearly a little exuberant clapping was the real problem in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
It was former health minister Javid – out of a job but proud owner of a new spine – who delivered the most damning judgement if only because it is all the more impressive to see those who countenanced so much for so long finally reaching breaking point. His resignation statement also gave him a handy platform for a possible future leadership bid – reminding his colleagues of his humble origins and commitment to being a man of action. Delayed action, some might whisper, but he did get there in the end.
“I have concluded that the problem starts at the top and I believe that is not going to change and that means that it is for those of us in a position who have responsibility to make that change,” he said. .
And he addressed a leadership challenge full-on with a hint at personal ambition: “I wish my cabinet colleagues well and I can see they have decided to remain in the cabinet. They will have their own reasons but it is a choice. I know just how difficult that choice is but let’s be clear; not doing something is an active decision. Many in the Conservative party are fixed on the notion that, in a party leadership contest, “he who wields the knife never wears the crown”. Like much of what passes for Tory collective wisdom, this references back to Margaret Thatcher. But it might be less true than people assume,” he said.
Those mulling that knife/crown conundrum might include Always-Insta-Ready Liz Truss, who has reportedly been wooing Tory MPs for months with Fizz with Liz social events and former chancellor Sunak, although his implication in Partygate – like Johnson he was fined – and the negative stories about this wife’s tax status may have taken some of the shine off.
Defence Minister Ben Wallace has won praise for his handling of the war in Ukraine and might make a bid, and newly appointed Chancellor Nadim Zahawi might also have his eye on the top job. Trade minister Penny Mordaunt and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt are others thought to be in the running.
Bookies have Mordaunt as the odds-on favourite, with Sunak in second place, according to the Mirror on Wednesday. But the knife has yet to be wielded and there is always, one assumes, the possibility that Johnson decides to call a snap election in his most brazen attempt yet to drag the country down with him.
As Javid ended his statement and PMQs came to a merciful end, Labour MPs roused themselves for a final rousing chorus of “Bye, Boris, bye.”
They might be speaking for the many and not the few, but sadly it is the few who will decide. Over to you, 1922.