Snarling, smirking, hurling insults – Boris Johnson’s first PMQs were not a great start in his avowed aim to unite the nation
The one good thing you could say about Boris Johnson’s first appearance at PMQs is that it did – however briefly – reinstate the weekly session as a parliamentary occasion. The chamber was packed, Labour MPs – who actually appear to dislike this Tory leader more than their own – were poised, John Bercow had the glow of a man about to declare the Games of the XXXII Olympiad open.
And that was the one good thing you could say about Boris Johnson’s first appearance at PMQs. Most of us had low expectations of Johnson v Corbyn – a fixture as lipsmacking as the 2008 FA Cup Final which saw Portsmouth meet Cardiff – but this was thoroughly depressing fare.
Johnson, they say, is the Heineken politician, a characterisation based on his taking the mayoralty of a Labour-leaning city. Leaving aside this was largely based on a ‘doughnut strategy’ (getting out enough Tory voters in the outer boroughs to negate the Labour vote in the inner boroughs), this was a long time ago. If you’ll allow me just one more football analogy, if 2008 Johnson was José Mourinho in his early days in England – shiny, erudite, a touch of the exotic – PM Johnson is Mourinho how he ends his stints at all clubs. Snarling, smirking and hurling insults to all and sundry.
Following a pathetic planted question from Robert Halfon (Con, Harlow), an MP of little note who seems to think a £55 saving a year on VAT to his constituents is worth them losing their jobs for, Corbyn rose to a better-than-usual response from his MPs.
He repeatedly demanded the government should publish official documents which show the impact of a no-deal Brexit on food and medicine supplies.
Johnson responded by highlighting a shadow minister’s suggestion that Labour’s spending policies were a “shit-or-bust strategy”, adding: “I say it’s both, Mr Speaker.”
Corbyn probed further about potential increases to food prices in the event of a no-deal Brexit, asking: “Will the prime minister publish the Yellowhammer documents so that people can see which food prices will go up and by how much?”
The PM insisted preparations for no-deal were “very far advanced” before adding: “I know he’s worried about free trade deals with America but there’s only one chlorinated chicken that I can see in this House and he’s on that bench.” Yep. That’s where he are. Some commentators – admittedly, all in the employ of the Daily Telegraph – still peddle the notion that Johnson is some kind of Swiftian wit. This was Jim Davidson stuff.
Elsewhere, Johnson said Corbyn would not submit the “surrender bill” to the verdict of the people in an election, adding: “We think the friends of this country can be found in Paris, Berlin and in the White House, and he thinks they’re in the Kremlin, Tehran and in Caracas – and I think he is Caracas, Mr Speaker.” Yep again. Sat to his right, Dominic Raab – the foreign secretary who looks like the boorish schoolmate on any stag do – laughed long and heartily at every quip. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to see Raab slapping Johnson on the bottom after the session and saying “you’ve got some big balls, mate”. To the left, Sajid Javid looked sad. That appears destined to be his role in this government, like Nick Clegg.
And this was Johnson’s shtick all the way through. The rebel legislation on halting a no-deal Brexit was “the surrender bill” (straight out of the Dominic Cummings playbook). He didn’t want an election, he told Corbyn, who was inevitably “frit”. He did want an election he told SNP leader Ian Blackford. Blackford, incidentally, referred to “the cult running Number 10”. At least I think that’s what he said,
Oh, and if all that wasn’t Trumpian enough for you, he found time to attack Sadiq Khan, saying he wasn’t “a patch on the old guy” and adding “I left him £600m, by the way.”
And finally, he faced pressure to apologise for comments he made comparing Muslim women who wear a hijab to bank robbers and letterboxes. Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Lab, Slough) – the first turban-wearing Sikh in the Commons – called on him to apologise for his “derogatory” comments immediately. MPs applauded as Dheshi said: “I understand the hurt and the pain felt by Muslim women when they are called bank robbers and letterboxes, and the prime minister must apologise now for his derogatory and racist remarks which have led to a spike in hate crimes.”
Johnson blustered about having the most diverse Cabinet ever, smirked some more and deflected the conversation onto the issue of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.
You could even be forgiven for thinking he wasn’t a patch on the old gal. She left him a nominal majority, by the way.