That was fun. Boris Johnson’s debut at PMQs had a bit of everything. Comedy, passion, swearing, name-calling, and oodles of synthetic outrage. Several parliamentary conventions were tested to breaking point.
The PM instantly took the fight to his opponents who are conspiring to halt Brexit by passing a delaying measure later today. ‘The Surrender Bill’, he called it. He labelled Jeremy Corbyn ‘a chlorinated chicken’ who believes that Britain’s closest allies reside in Teheran and Caracas, and not in Berlin or the White House.
‘I think he’s Caracas.’
He accused Labour of inciting ‘mobs of Momentum activists to paralyse the traffic.’ He imagined hordes of black-clad rebels blocking bridges, chanting contradictory slogans.
‘What do we want? Dither and delay! When do we want it? We don’t know!’
To meet the bulldozer-ish self-confidence of the new PM, Corbyn raised his game. Instead of his usual snarl and blather, he responded tersely when Johnson implored him not to wreck the negotiations by scrapping the ultimatum of a no-deal Brexit.
‘I fail to see how I can be accused of undermining the negotiations,’ said Corbyn, ‘when no negotiations are taking place.’
Johnson turned to Labour’s plans for the economy which, he claimed, would slap ‘a £300 billion tax on every company in the country.’ He quoted Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner.
‘By your leave, Mr Speaker, she said that Labour’s economic policy is “s*** or bust.” I say it’s both.’
A rebuke from the Chair? No, apparently. ‘S***’ is acceptable form in parliament. As is likening the opposition leader to a chemically sanitised wildfowl. But when Johnson called his opponent ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ he was chastised for using a member’s name.
‘I am simply and politely informing the prime minister of a very long-standing tradition,’ said the Speaker.
World-class windbag Ian Blackford puffed out his cheeks and spoke as if his question were being carried live, coast-to-coast, by every US television network. Trembling with self-righteousness, he declared that Scotland would refuse to ‘be dragged out of the EU against our will.’ Scotland voted Remain, he thundered. True enough. Scotland voted to remain within the UK at the 2014 referendum.
Then, a chilling moment. Slough MP, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, remembered the abuse he’d suffered as a kid when bullies accused him of ‘coming from Bongo-Bongo Land.’ He labelled Johnson a ‘racist’ for writing a column in which he described veiled Muslim women as ‘letterboxes.’
Clapping broke out across the opposition benches. Johnson’s foes have long hungered to chastise him in public for his rash words. Now the chance had arrived. And the joy they felt at their own noisy applause was supplemented by a liberating sense of transgression. Clapping is prohibited in the house. The Speaker tried to stop it, but not very hard.
Johnson stood up.
‘If the honourable gentlemen took the trouble to read the article he would know it was a strong liberal defence of everyone’s right to wear what they like.’
He seemed cowed and unconvinced by his response. Then he took a breath, rediscovered his strength, and dragged the subject onto different terrain.
‘We have the most diverse cabinet in this country’s history!’ he cried. ‘And we truly reflect modern Britain.’
It wasn’t enough. Every opposition MP will want to repeat this electrifying moment at PMQs. The answer Johnson gave was factually accurate but emotionally deficient. He needs to rummage through the arsenal of his creativity and come up with sharper weapons.