“In addition to my duties in this house, I shall have further such meetings later today,” rasped Boris Johnson as he addressed the Commons on Wednesday. He’d lost his voice – and he could not have picked a worse day for it.
One of the rowdiest Prime Minister’s Questions in recent memory, it was followed by the semi-circular firing squad of the liaison committee and, perhaps most alarming of all, a rendezvous with his own backbenchers at the 1922 committee.
It wasn’t just his own vocal chords that had given up on him. The Conservative benches looked sparsely populated. Those who had shown up slouched feebly, while their Labour counterparts crammed in excitedly like hyenas at a watering hole at feeding time on the Serengeti.
Even the Eeyore-ish Leader of the Opposition appeared animated. Sir Keir Starmer began in a familiar guise; the Witchfinder-General, scouring recent parliamentary controversies to unearth wrongdoing.
“When I was director of public prosecutions,” he whined, placing his hand on his chest, “I prosecuted MPs who broke the rules. He has been investigated by every organisation he’s ever been elected to.”
Part jungle, part rodeo
But the Prime Minister had a trump card which he deployed against all questions about standards or sleaze: Sir Keir’s ties to Mishcon de Reya, the law firm which he mentioned repeatedly, to the irritation of the Speaker.
“Mr Speaker, I refer to the Right Hon gentleman’s ‘Mish-conduct’,” rasped the Prime Minister. Reverting to his gag once again, it was nearly drowned out by jeers. But he croaked on, with the kamikaze energy of Borat singing his Kazakh national anthem to a furious crowd at the Virginia Rodeo.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle fought a long and doomed battle to restore order. “Let’s show a little more decorum!” he would say to the Labour frontbench, in his affable headmaster style. But after a few failed attempts to move the Prime Minister off Mishcon de Reya, he snapped.
“Prime Minister! Sit down!” he cried, morphing from Mr Chips into Miss Trunchbull. “In this House, I’m in charge!”
Mind the gaps…
The backlash came from within and without, from old foes and erstwhile allies. Ian Blackford could barely contain his glee. “My goodness, look at the gaps on the Tory benches!” he gloated, as though crunching on the bone marrow of a particularly toothsome antelope. “They’ve all got second jobs!” brayed a colleague.
Chris Law of the SNP scanned the horizon for the fabled backbenchers.
Swooping on the decision to scale back the Northern Powerhouse rail line, an infuriated-looking Jake Berry demanded to know if “the North can take the PM at his word?”
Alone on the benches, Michael Fabricant sought a retraction: “The Leader of the Opposition called the Prime Minister a coward. Surely that is in breach of Erskine May, and improper, and should be withdrawn?”
“I withdraw it, but he’s no leader,” conceded Sir Keir.
But the Prime Minister was not there to witness this most barbed of disclaimers. He had already cantered away like a panicked wildebeest.