After 92 days in post, Boris Johnson finally deigned to appear at his second prime minister’s questions today
There are many reasons for the tardy attendance rate, of course – an illegal prorogation of Parliament, a party conference meaning he had to send dead-eyed-shark-in-a-suit Dominic Raab in his place, a Queen’s Speech setting out a legislative agenda he knows full well he can’t deliver – but at least he was here now.
And, given that it came the day after his Brexit plan was sent hurtling into limbo by MPs derailing his plan to rush the most complex piece of post-war legislation through a House of Commons containing such forensic heavyweights as Andrew Bridgen and Richard Burgon, there was one obvious question: what are you going to do now? And did Jeremy Corbyn ask it? Well, what do you think?
But before the Labour leader rose, Rupa Huq (Labour, Ealing Central and Acton) was in first with a zinger. Johnson, she said, had “a long list of shortcomings” before asking: “So could he do something over one that he does have some control of – and get rid of Dominic Cummings?”. Not a bad line, were it not delivered with all the leadenness of Droopy the dog reading the terms and conditions of a contents insurance document.
The PM said he received “excellent advice” from a wide range of advisers and officials, adding: “I take full responsibility for everything that this government does.” Which is a contrast to those things he hasn’t taken responsibilty for (internment of a British woman in Iran, spending £53m on a non-existent bridge, fathering children).
And so to Corbyn, presented with an open goal. And to say he missed would be to misunderstand – he’s playing an entirely different sport. Rather than looking to hold to account a government floundering on its central and indeed only policy, Corbyn is looking for his Facebook clip – and with an election looming he wanted to stay on the NHS. Party like it’s 2017, if you will.
“Under his government and that of his predecessor, privatisation has more than doubled to £10bn in our NHS, there are currently 20 NHS contracts out to tender and, when he’s promised 40 hospitals, he then reduced that to 20 and then it turns out that the reconfiguration is taking place in just six hospitals, and so these numbers keep tumbling down while these unfunded spending commitments that he liberally makes around the country,” he said, the last bit not making much sense.
“I must say to him that he is completely wrong in what he says about privatisation of the NHS,” replied Johnson. “And I must resist this, because those 40 new hospitals, those 47,000 new clinical staff, including 17,000 nurses, they weren’t paid for out of private funds… they were paid for by the NHS.” In truth, there isn’t really much privatisation of the NHS and there aren’t really going to be any new hospitals, but no doubt the lines will play well with the voters they’ve identified.
It took 34 minutes, and the arrival of Ken Clarke, for somebody to finally ask what Johnson’s plan was following the rejection of his Brexit timetable.
“Will my right honourable friend firstly get over his disappointment and accept that October 31 is now Halloween, it is devoid of any symbolic or political content and will fade away into historical memory very rapidly?,” asked the former chancellor. Johnson said that “alas” he’d been boxed in by Parliament requesting an extension under the Benn Act. “I stress it wasn’t my request,” he said, still proud of his dextrous photocopying ruse.
Elsewhere, Sir David Amess (Conservative, Southend West), a muculent right-winger, rose to remind Johnson that he had voted for him as Tory leader on the basis of getting Brexit, being made a Duke (“because my wife fancies becoming a Duchess”) and Southend getting city status. Cue lots of giggles and guffaws at this joshing MP! Unrelated fact: 39 people were found dead in a lorry in Essex today and others, whose constituencies aren’t in that county, saw fit to mention it.
Finally, Penny Mordaunt, humiliatingly sacked from the Cabinet on day one of Johnson’s premiership for the crime of supporting Jeremy Hunt, paid tribute to the PM for “achieving things the establishment said couldn’t be done”. Good old Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Eton College, Balliol College, Oxford, Telegraph columnist and Spectator editor, giving the establishment a whack. Oh, Penny!