Hurricane Johnson leaves carnage in his wake. Can his opponents stop him?
4 min read
It must be maddening for those hoping to get straight answers, but Boris Johnson's modus obstandi is devastatingly effective, writes Patrick Kidd
We live in unpredictable times at Westminster. Even the certain landmarks that we felt could never change are shifting and there is no greater sign of upheaval than the fact that Sir Michael Fallon spoke in a debate on October 21st while wearing a cerise tie.
Sir Michael is not one of those peacocks – a Bone, say, or a Bercow – who cries out for attention with his neckwear. For almost every day of his 31 years in the House, the Sevenoaks MP has worn the same uniform: a white shirt and mid-tone blue tie (not too navy, not too turquoise). Very safe, very Tory, very predictable. And yet here he was wearing something fresh and eye-catching for a Brexit statement. It was disconcerting, like seeing a bald Michael Fabricant or Diane Abbott blitzing the numbers round on Countdown.
The former defence secretary was back in trademark blue the next day (the whips must have checked if he was about to defect) but the memory of this sudden change of image lingered. I fear that we may see more drastic fashion experiments in the House as Brexit fatigue sets in, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg wearing brown shoes and a single-breasted suit.
At least we could rely on Boris Johnson – not a sentence written often – as the prime minister arrived for only his second PMQs in three months looking, as usual, like a scarecrow that has passed through a combine harvester. He may not have died in a ditch to get Brexit completed by Halloween, as he promised, but it looked as if he had slept in one.
This is his gimmick, of course. The messy thatch, which viewed from above seems to have been deliberately plastered out of place with gel, has long been part of his brand. Should Mr Johnson ever lose his hair, it would be more disastrous for him than it was for Samson.
Also on brand in PMQs was his rollercoaster style of speaking: wild gestures, thumps on the dispatch box, a splurge of polysyllabic verbiage and big claims that didn’t even give a nod to the question just posed nor a curtsy at reality. He kept saying his Brexit deal had passed through parliament, apparently unaware or uncaring that MPs had torpedoed his programme motion the night before. Pah! Had passed, will pass, we’re just disagreeing over which tense to use.
Jeremy Corbyn, who had one of his better performances for all that it was like trying to stun a rampaging bull with a peashooter, kept being swatted aside with personal attacks. Fan of Venezuela, tick! Supported the IRA, tick! Hates America and free trade, tick, tick! And when the Labour leader tried to pin the PM down on detail, a task like nailing jelly to the wall, he was bamboozled with Latin. Mr Corbyn asked whether the PM would amend the Queen’s Speech to protect the NHS from privatisation. “He’s showing complete ignoratio elenchi!” Mr Johnson scoffed, using a phrase from classical philosophy that means “missing the point” and has been deployed only once in the history of Hansard, by Mr Johnson himself in 2002.
It is fair to say that almost the entire House was bewildered by this. Who says Mr Johnson can’t build a consensus? Ignoratio Elenchi: sounds like she could have been one of Boris’s companions at a Spectator lunch when he was a hands-on editor. Mr Corbyn asked for a translation but Hurricane Johnson was already several blocks down the road by this point, leaving carnage in his wake.
It must be maddening for those seeking to trip him up – or even hoping to get an answer, which some optimists claim is the point of PMQs – but the Johnson modus obstandi is devastatingly effective.
When he can duck scrutiny, as he now has with the Liaison Committee three times, he will; when forced to face it, he will simply ignore it and bluster his way through. The only way to check him is democratically. To adapt a line from Jaws, one of the prime minister’s favourite films: his opponents are going to need a bigger vote.
Patrick Kidd is Diary editor of The Times and a former political sketchwriter. His book, The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics, has just been published by Biteback
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