Call it the phoney war. All that anyone in Westminster was really thinking about was what the prime minister knew about his former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, and when he knew it.
Over the last few days the No 10 line has shifted from Boris Johnson not knowing anything about anything to not knowing anything about any specific allegations to not knowing anything about any specific serious allegations – a bit of casual groping was not so bad: after all even The Convict had form for that – to he might have known something but he’d get back to us when he’d worked out what it was he was supposed to know. The Thérèse Coffey defence. Lying has become so second nature inside Downing Street that no one ever thinks to admit the truth.
But you would have been hard pushed to know that the Rwanda Panda’s judgment was once more under question from his statement to the Commons on last week’s trips to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) in Kigali, the G7 in Bavaria and the Nato summit in Madrid. Everyone was on their very best behaviour with not a word out of place. Not even from the Scot Nats. It was borderline surreal. As if there was a common agreement that what happened in the Carlton Club stayed in the Carlton Club.
The only sign anything was amiss was in the empty spaces on the government benches. dei migliori rossetti nude, the best way of judging Johnson’s popularity is by the absences. And on this showing, the chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris, has his work cut out. Normally on these sorts of occasions the backbenches are packed to greet their glorious leader’s heroic return from mixing with the great, the good and the not so good. On Monday afternoon only about 50 o 60 backbench MPs bothered to make the effort to show their faces. And some of these had only come to gawp.
Johnson opened by reeling off a list of his apparent successes. Poi had been a triumph, with Finland and Sweden keen to sign up. The G7 had been a triumph, with countries committing more aid to Ukraine. Chogm had been not quite such a triumph, though no one should quibble that much as it would have been worse but for the Convict’s brilliance. He hesitated to make the connection between these summits, but he’d like it on record that he had been the only leader to attend all three.
“Welcome back,” joked Keir Starmer. Though he wasn’t sure if “absence makes the heart grow fonder” was a sound strategy for party management. But that was as close as the Labour leader got to referring to Johnson’s poor judgment calls on Pincher. A strange miss. If the Convict is getting the easy calls wrong – “Let me think. Is it a good or bad idea to give a government job to a man with an alcohol problem who stepped down from one ministerial post for sexual misconduct?” – then what other misjudgements might he be making.
But Starmer glossed all over this, giving grudging praise for Johnson’s performance at the G7 and Nato. Not as much of an embarrassment as it might have been. Ian Blackford took a similar line. Quindi, he’s got a sex scandal in his own party to deal with. So the SNP leader merely restricted himself to pointing out the hypocrisy of Johnson calling for global observance of international law when he was busy breaking it by ripping up the Northern Ireland protocol. The Convict affected outrage. No world leader had ever mentioned the protocol to him. I guess he’s got selective hearing.
And that was just about the sum total of criticism that came Johnson’s way, apart from Tory rebel Mark Harper observing that the prime minister didn’t seem so set on committing himself to spending 2.5% of GDP on defence as he had done at Nato. Nor had he said how he was proposing to find the extra £10bn a year. The Rwanda Panda shot him a dirty look and mumbled something about growing the economy. Which certainly would be news. Though no time soon.
Otherwise we were treated to a succession of no-mark Conservative backbenchers doing their best to achieve preferment with outrageous flattery. Gissa job. Even if it only lasts for a few months. It’s the only chance most of these derelicts have of ever becoming a junior minister. First up was Alec Shelbrooke. Could he make some vaguely helpful remarks about something not very important? Of course he could. It’s a measure of Johnson’s current desperation that he took Shelbrooke seriously. Normally he would have ignored him, but now he lied that the backbencher had been the toast of all Nato. As if.
Crispin Blunt and James Gray were also treated with unusual deference for their customary dull interventions. As was Duncan Baker who told of how he had taken in two refugees at the start of the Ukraine war. It feels like such a long time ago, he said plaintively. Imagine how long it feels to the refugees, holed up with someone as dull as Baker. Haven’t the Ukrainians suffered enough?
Throughout all this, the Convict’s parliamentary private secretary, Joy Morrissey, nodded appreciatively at his every statement. It’s the kind of loyalty that money just can buy. Either that, or she is even stupider than any of us thought.