Normally, when faced with a new and difficult challenge, people get a little better with practice. But, remarkably, when it comes to facing Sir Keir Starmer at PMQs, Boris Johnson seems to be getting worse. He was never very accomplished in the first place – Starmer won most of their exchanges before the summer recess, often quite easily – but today Johnson was even less impressive than he has been before.
His problems were the same as those on display earlier in the year: a refusal to engage with substance, and an over-reliance on attack lines that just don’t work. Today, with no relevance at all to the question in hand, Johnson launched into a diatribe about Starmer being anti-Brexit and on the side of “an IRA-condoning politician” (ie, Jeremy Corbyn – who would contest the claim he condoned terrorism) before accusing Starmer of being opposed to pupils returning to schools.
At one point Johnson delivered a half-decent swipe against Starmer, describing him as “Captain Hindsight” and saying that Labour never challenged the exam grade algorithm plan it is now criticising so robustly.
But Starmer dealt with this very effectively (telling Johnson he was governing by hindsight – a good example of why being able to think on your feet counts for so much at PMQs), and the rest of Johnson’s lines failed either because they were irrelevant, or because they were never true in the first place. (See 12.30pm and 12.46pm.)
It is normal for politicians to attack their opponents in terms that are not entirely fair. But the good ones know when what they are up to when they are doing this. Today Johnson sounded like someone who might even believe his own propaganda – always a worrying trait.
Although this was in many ways a replay of some of the PMQs we had before the summer, there were at least three new factors in play today that should be concerning for Tory MPs.
First, Johnson doesn’t seem to even be trying to get better. He has had the whole summer to think about how he could improve at PMQs, but today there was no evidence that he has done so. It is one thing to be bad at a particular task; but to try not to get better is less forgivable. This would not matter much if it were just lefty journalists saying that he has been poor at PMQs, but even in the rightwing press it is hard to find anyone saying he has been a success.
Second, Starmer is getting even more confident and authoritative. In the past his PMQs performances have been forensic, but a bit arid, but the more time he spends facing Johnson, the harder he seems to finding it his concealing his contempt for the PM.
His anger comes over as more authentic than Johnson’s, and it was particularly on display when he spoke about his time prosecuting terrorists as DPP. At one point No 10 seemed to think that labelling Starmer as a lawyer would harm is reputation. Today that strategy looks more ineffective than ever.
And, third, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, seems to have finally lost patience with Johnson too. When John Bercow was Speaker he would sometimes interrupt David Cameron when he embarked on lengthy, anti-Labour rants at PMQs. Hoyle has been much less interventionist as a Speaker than Bercow.
But today he shut the PM up when Johnson started to use his dispatch box platform to try to link Starmer to the IRA. He even went further in the next exchange, asking Johnson to address Starmer’s call for that remark to be withdrawn. This suggests that Johnson will have less scope than he might have done for using PMQs as a party political platform.