Not since Boris Johnson first burst into the Commons after being crowned leader has an appearance by a Prime Minister been so hotly anticipated.
Back on that sweltering July day he slayed Jeremy Corbyn. Sliced him, diced him and whacked him in the Magimix while his backbenchers roared him to the rafters.
Three years on from that lively afternoon and what a different prospect awaited the PM in the chamber yesterday. Those same MPs who once whooped and cheered his every move now eyed him with owlish suspicion as he fumbled his way awkwardly to his seat. From the Opposition benches there came a volley of pantomime boos.
Inside the world’s most famous political amphitheatre the atmosphere heaved with expectation. Rammed in the press gallery, necks craned. A deathly tension hung in the air. No one, not least the Prime Minister, had any idea how this session would play out. Or, indeed, whether he would even be standing half an hour later.
Not since Boris Johnson first burst into the Commons after being crowned leader has an appearance by a Prime Minister been so hotly anticipated
Crouching impatiently was Sir Keir Starmer, his weight forward on one leg like a lynx waiting to pounce. ‘There we have it,’ he exclaimed. ‘The pathetic spectacle of a man who ran out of road’
Did he survive? Well, just about. Political obituarists can momentarily down quills. The man David Cameron christened the ‘greased piglet’ had once again slipped from his enemy’s grasp. For now, at any rate. The blades of the abattoir still whirr.
More from Henry Deedes for the Daily Mail…
Mr Johnson opened with a mea culpa. It turned out the PM had attended the now infamous Downing Street garden shindig in May 2020, surprise, surprise. But for just 25 minutes.
He said he understood the public ‘fury’ and ‘took responsibility’, but added he had ‘implicitly’ believed it was a work event – definitely not a party, ahem. As fibs go, it was one to place alongside Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle eye test in the pantheon of political whoppers.
Twice his offer of a ‘heartfelt apology’ was met with dismissive scoffs. But his contrite tone and suitably hangdog expression at least seemed to extract some of the venom from the chamber.
Not that anything he said was ever going to come close to satisfying the baying hyenas opposite. ‘Resign!’ they screamed. ‘Disgrace!’
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, braced for his busiest session yet in the chair, refereed masterfully, cutting off the more boisterous heckles without killing the sense of theatre.
Observing Boris’s discomfiture two rows behind him was his knifed predecessor Theresa May, eyes tilted toward the ceiling, offering up a grateful prayer to the Gods of Karma.
Crouching impatiently was Sir Keir Starmer, his weight forward on one leg like a lynx waiting to pounce. ‘There we have it,’ he exclaimed. ‘The pathetic spectacle of a man who ran out of road.’
Sir Keir is not blessed in the vocal department. Too tightly woven, too nasal. But there was something in the way he spat out that word ‘pathetic’ that seemed to fly across the despatch box and bury itself right in Boris’s solar plexus.
For the next 15 minutes Starmer threw out his arms and attempted to drench his opponent in slurry. Occasionally he would throw back his jaw and erupt into mock laughter.
Boris sat, face down shaking his head, those drawn features pale as heavily whisked egg whites. A forlorn convict in the dock hearing his crimes read back to him.
Alongside, his Cabinet colleagues slouched in glum repose. Even the usually chirpy Nadine Dorries’s guns had fallen silent. Absent from the roll call was Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was on a long-arranged visit to North Devon. Convenient.
Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, braced for his busiest session yet in the chair, refereed masterfully, cutting off the more boisterous heckles without killing the sense of theatre
Absent from the roll call was Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was on a long-arranged visit to North Devon. Convenient
For once Starmer resisted the tendency to blather and offered short, choppy questions. He remains, however, a flat-footed performer, unable to deviate from his prepared questions.
He might have asked how on earth did Johnson not know it was a party when his private secretary sent out an email demanding everyone ‘bring your own booze’.
Instead, Sir Keir dwelled too long playing to the gallery by demanding the PM resign, a tactic Boris was able to deflect by simply requesting the House await the result of civil servant Sue Gray’s investigation.
The rest of the session flowed down a predictable path. The Scots Nats gnashed and ground their teeth. Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey droned on piously.
Meanwhile, the Tories raised mundane issues far removed from Partygate to comic effect.
Alberto Costa (Con, S Leicestershire) wanted to put a stop to washing machine companies installing harmful plastic micro filters into their machines. Cue an eruption of chuckles.
‘People are laughing at plastic pollution, Mr Speaker!’ wailed Costa.
Considering the context, one could hardly blame them.
What will have relieved Boris was that no assassin from his own side materialised.
For all their whispered grumblings, no one was yet prepared to stand up and tell him the game is up. Had there been, then it really would have been goodnight Vienna.
When Sir Lindsay called time the PM exhaled heavily. Usually he darts off, but instead he remained seated for a moment before languidly making his way to for the exit. Not so much the usual express train flying past the platform as a wave-battered tug boat steaming slowly into harbour for repairs.
So he beats on, nose against the current, a Prime Minister who remains a prisoner to his past.