he Godfather is one of Boris Johnson’s favourite movies, so he is familiar with the restaurant scene where an astonished Sollozzo is killed. This afternoon the Prime Ministerwas Sollozzo. Lured into a trap and pumped full of bullets by Keir Starmer, the dude he had complacently written off as harmless.
Westminster’s update of the mobster classic began with pleasantries about England’s Euro 2020 victory. Starmer recalled being at Wembley for the 1996 defeat, a chippy reminder that he is a football devotee, not just a fan on England days.
The trap was laid. “Why didn’t the Prime Minister sack the former Health Secretary on Friday morning?” A perfect opener. If he had seen what was coming, Johnson would have conceded: “He’s right, Mr Speaker, I should have sacked Hancock immediately but I was distracted by meetings about the vaccination programme, which I am pleased to say is on track.”
But Johnson saw no danger. So instead he pretended he sort-of kinda did sack Hancock in the end. “I read the story on Friday and we had a new Health Secretary in place by Saturday,” breezed the PM, sitting down.
Starmer played with his prey for another couple of questions. Hadn’t the PM ruled the matter “closed” on Friday? Didn’t his office brief he was “quite happy” for Hancock to stay in post? “The Prime Minister must have been the only person in the country who looked at that photo on Friday morning and thought that the Health Secretary shouldn’t be sacked immediately.”
Johnson knew he was out on a limb, but seemed confident he could neutralise Starmer (as he has on many Wednesdays) with ridicule and some vaccine braggadocio. He had acted, he jeered, “at positively lightning speed in comparison to the gentleman opposite who spent three days trying and failing to sack his deputy leader – whom he then promoted”.
Starmer soaked it up and pulled the PM deeper into the killing ground of his beautifully crafted questions. “In a minute he will say he scored the winner last night,” he sneered. It was “blindingly obvious” that there was a conflict of interest when Hancock appointed his some-time lover as a Ned, or non-executive director at Health.
Johnson still exuded complacency. Gina Coladangelo had also left her post, he pointed out, throwing in that the UK had overtaken Israel’s vaccination rate.
At this point in the Godfather, a screeching sound effect of a train signals the moment for the trap to spring shut. Starmer, turning cold as ice, brought up the case of Ollie Bibby, a cherished son who died in hospital of leukaemia without his family because they were obeying the rules on visits set by the former Health Secretary.
“In hospital he begged to see his family,” said Starmer. The young man’s mother had obeyed the rules to the letter, yet Hancock had been flouting them at exactly the same time. Labour’s leader stared furiously down his nose at the PM: “How could you possibly think this matter was closed on Friday?”
It is rare to see Boris Johnson properly rattled. But the penny finally dropped that the picture of Hancock grabbing his aide’s bum was not at all funny or frivolous to people who lost loved ones.
The Tory leader turned pink and began blathering about sharing the grief and pain of Ollie’s family, as if that were possible. And then he made things worse by babbling: “Actually what we are doing as a Government, instead of focusing on stuff going on within the Westminster bubble, we are focusing on rolling out that vaccine.”
Quick as a flash, Starmer exploited the PM’s blunder. “This is not the Westminster bubble,” he growled, his face dark with disgust. Starmer then showed how diligently he had prepared for today’s encounter. He had spoken to Ollie’s mum and heard first-hand about “the awful circumstances she and her family have been through”.
While Johnson squirmed in his seat, Starmer said Ollie’s mother had told him she watched every one of Johnson’s press conferences “and she hung onto every word that Government ministers said so she would know what her family could and couldn’t do”.
The appalled faces of Tory MPs showed Starmer had lit up a nerve. Remorselessly, Starmer accused the PM of failing to quiz Hancock “either because he didn’t want to know the answers or he knows full well there’s more to come out”.
Johnson muttered “nonsense” from the bench opposite, but it was too late. He was a deflated figure by the end of the exchanges, caught out by his own complacence – first about the true importance of the Hancock scandal, then again when facing a former Director of Public Prosecutions who today revealed he is still master of a first-rate courtroom interrogation, with a lethal slug of political insight.
With a tricky by-election tomorrow, these are testing times for Sir Keir Starmer. This afternoon he showed he cannot be written off lightly.