Starmer slams ‘spectacle of PM under police investigation’ as Boris Johnson awaits Sue Gray report – live

Many people consider exchanges at PMQs largely pointless and, while sometimes they illuminate the key policy arguments dividing the parties, often they don’t. Today the Johnson/Starmer contest was in that category. It did not really take us anywhere.

But often the real audience for PMQs is not the public at large, but those in the chamber, and today – more than usual – it sounded as though Boris Johnson was primarily interested in shoring up his standing with Conservative MPs. It is quite possible that the Sue Gray report (about which we learned nothing new today, not even its timing) will trigger a Tory no-confidence vote. If so, Johnson will have to appear at a 1922 Committee hustings (a hustings against himself, in effect). If you want to understand what he was up to at PMQs today, think of it as a rehearsal for the speech he will give there.

What did we learn? The main thing, probably, was just that he is up for the fight. The figure we saw in that TV interview with Beth Rigby eight days ago seems to have vanished. Otherwise the pitch was the usual mixture of boosterism and dishonesty (the claim the government is cutting tax is particularly egregious), although Johnson did seem to be hardening his language on the Northern Ireland protocol. (See 12.28pm.) Johnson did deploy a new attack line against Keir Starmer, “a lawyer not a leader”, which worked reasonably well in the chamber. Interestingly, the former Ukip MEP Patrick O’Flynn claimed he used it first in a Telegraph column.

Judging by the noise, all this went down well with Tory MPs. But you know what? At PMQs, or in the chamber generally, you can’t judge by the noise. MPs, particularly Conservative ones, are very capable of cheering a leader to the rafters while privately disparaging them and doing their best to remove them. It probably is the case that some Johnson loyalists have become more willing to rally to his side in recent days (we saw that in the Michael Ellis UQ yesterday), but it would be a mistake to interpret the noise level this afternoon as firm evidence that opinion is shifting back in Johnson’s favour within his parliamentary party.

Starmer was suitably withering, but it felt as if he is holding back until his next encounter with Johnson – later today or tomorrow – once the Gray report is out. He got Johnson to confirm that he accepts the rule that he must resign if he has misled parliament, and then he argued that Johnson’s comments about partying at No 10 last year clearly show that he did lie. Some of Johnson’s critics believe that this ought to be what forces him to go, but parliament does not really have a body willing to arbitrate on these matters (apart from the standards committee, which has shown no interest in becoming a PMQs fact-checking body), and Johnson can argue that his “rules followed at all times” statements either applied to specific dates, or were true to the best of his knowledge. (The ministerial code says “knowingly” misleading the Commons is the problem, not any misleading.) Starmer dropped this line of attack after his second question, perhaps suggesting he thinks there are limits to how far it will take him.

Johnson used the “lawyer not leader” jibe in his final answer, and so Starmer did not have a chance to reply. But Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a Labour Corbynite with form for parliamentary hooliganism, rode to his defence by declaring: “I would prefer to be led by a lawyer than a liar.” He received the expected rebuke from the Speaker, but it was the best retort of the entire session, and not a bad slogan for the opposition.


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