Spluttering Boris Johnson reverts to filibuster mode as PMQs get personal

Travel chaos be damned, the Tory front bench had turned out in force. Ministers jostled for space, crammed in like miserable commuters on a rail replacement bus. Conor Burns and Priti Patel, squashed together in an awkward forced embrace, did their best not to elbow each other in the side.

The Labor benches looked less densely packed – perhaps a few were still out picketing? On Tuesday, Arthur Scargill had done the Tories a solid by showing up at the RMT picket-lines, fresh from his grace and favor flat in the Barbican and wearing his iconic Battle of Orgreave baseball cap for full brand recognition. Twenty-five Labor MPs had followed his lead.

But Chris Elmore, who had the first question, opened with something altogether more personal – Carrie Johnson, that plum FCO job, and the mystery of the vanishing news story. Had the Prime Minister, he asked, “ever considered the appointment of his current spouse to a government post?”

The Tory benches fumed, but the PM, pinkening for only a moment, reverted to his well-oiled formula for fending off tricky questions. Accusing Elmore of dwelling on “non-existent jobs in the media”, he barreled into filibuster mode by launching into an off-topic rant about the Government’s greatest hits, delivered in double-quick time, reminiscent of a modern major general.

This he did at all moments of difficulty, which sometimes meant sputtering his words. A boast about “fiscal firepower” became “physical firepower” – though in fairness the Prime Minister has never had too much trouble on that score, at least in the Genghis Khan stakes. Sometimes his words were entirely indecipherable; a series of gobbling turkey noises punctuated by the odd “bah!”

For once, Keir Starmer had put a bit of well into it. Grant Shapps, he said, was more focused on “working on his spreadsheet tracking the prime minister’s unpopularity” than trying to find a solution to the disruption. His nasal grumble about bankers’ bonuses felt like a bit of a Miliband-era tribute act, but at least it wasn’t entirely lifeless.

The trouble for Sir Keir was those pesky strikes. At the first mention of them, the Tory backbenchers carped like trained seals and pointed across the floor. “Your strikes!” they bellowed. Kate Osborne of Jarrow, a Labor PPS who’d ignored the picket-line ban, ranted about executive pay and speculated about a general strike. If Starmer had been hoping to stay out of harm’s way, safely ensconced in the waiting room, this was not helping.

“If she wants to support the working people of this country, can I suggest she gets off the picket line!” bellowed the PM, to manic cheering from his colleagues. Any mention of strikes drew wails of ecstasy from the faithful party. So too “levelling-up”, which came up so many times that the only rational explanation was some kind of sweepstake amongst Red Wall MPs over who could shoehorn it into their own (and other people’s) speeches the most. After a tight race, Alex Stafford of Rother Valley took the palm with four “level-ups” in a single question.

Ian Blackford looked strangely subdued, which is not his style. The SNP spokesman usually prefers to go into fire-and-brimstone mode at the first hint of scandal – holding forth on the moral turpitude of Westminster like a sort of besuited, latter-day John Knox. Carriegate would have pricked his interest under normal circumstances. Yet for some reason – perhaps a Patrick Grady-shaped one – Blackford mumbled an unusually dry question about economic growth, and was almost drowned out by jeers.

It was one of those PMQs that left all who witnessed it feeling a few IQ points dumber by the end. Einstein would have morphed into Stephen Fry; Stephen Fry into Forrest Gump. As is often the case, the biggest winners were the people who didn’t tune in.


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