Burma Road: Boris Johnson’s fate now lies in the hands of the three Brendas
Patrick Kidd's weekly Westminster sketch
History should record, even if Hansard didn’t, that at 2.40pm (and 37 seconds) on Tuesday 15 October, 2019, a most unfamiliar sound came from the Treasury bench as the MP for Finchley & Golders Green walked to the end of the Table and stood to the Speaker’s left. It was the sound of government whips exhaling in relief at having won a vote.
On the 84th day of Boris Johnson’s premiership, his government had finally gained the support of the House, something that had begun to look as rare as away wins by Manchester United or invitations for Jeremy Corbyn to attend a bar mitzvah. Eleanor Laing, the deputy Speaker, was stunned. Holding out both hands to silence the chatter she declared: “Order! I realise this is a unique moment…”
Mike Freer read the scoreline and Mrs Laing, her eyes widening like a child on Christmas morn, repeated it. “The ayes to the right 280,” she said, putting such wonder into the final two digits that if this had been the football videprinter on Grandstand, they would have written out the number in words afterwards to clarify that, yes, this was correct. “The noes to the left 204, so the ayes have it, the ayes have it. Unlock!”
What does this unlock, though? It was only a statutory instrument on pollution (the House, for once, decided it wants less hot air); a bigger test of the whips’ persuasive powers will come a week later, with many expecting Mr Johnson to suffer the first defeat on a Queen’s Speech for 95 years.
There had been an odd atmosphere, therefore, on the previous day when MPs were summoned to hear the monarch read out a legislative agenda that may last as long as James Cracknell’s stay on Strictly Come Dancing. It felt as if we were going through the motions. The Lords was full (this was, after all, the first time in two years that peers had dusted off their ermine) but some didn’t see the point. “It costs me £180 to hire the outfit and we’ll be doing it again in a couple of months,” one lord grumbled to me.
The Queen, for only the third time in her reign, had decided not to wear the heavy Imperial Crown, which sat on a plump cushion, but she seemed burdened nonetheless after that hoo-hah with the prorogation that never was. “My government’s priority,” she began, then appeared to give a sigh before clearing her throat and ploughing on. She knows her duty.
This was her 65th State Opening and the prose was as leaden and uninspiring as ever. The TV camera kept showing the prime minister bouncing up and down on his toes and looking a little pained as his monarch read out vague waffle about “unlocking full potential”, “long-term vision” and “making work fairer”. There was little grace in a Gracious Address.
Was that a gulp from Sajid Javid, the chancellor, when she spoke of pursuing a “responsible fiscal strategy”? And does the “ambitious space strategy” amount to more than the joke that Mr Johnson made in his conference speech about sending Mr Corbyn, “that communist cosmonaut”, into orbit? It was all being done for show; a party political broadcast with a more spangly set. By the time the Queen reached a line about “ensuring dignity in old age”, one wondered if she felt trolled.
Mr Johnson had hoped that 14 October would be the day of a general election but Labour refused to play ball. Now the prime minister’s plans lie in the hands of Three Brendas. As he seeks a path out of the Stygian gloom, he will need to win round first the Brenda who sits on the throne (as Private Eye call her), then the Brenda, Baroness Hale, who sits as president in the Supreme Court and has a taste for blocking sharp practice. Finally, most importantly, he has to woo Brenda from Bristol, and millions like her, whose reaction on being told that an election is coming sigh: “Not another one!”
Patrick Kidd is Diary Editor at The Times and a former political sketchwriter. His book, The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics, has just been published by Biteback