What does one say when one has just tried to push one’s boss under a bus, and by some fluke he has survived? What is the correct etiquette the next time one meets?
You or I might find this a difficult question, but for Conservative MPs it is all perfectly straightforward. One simply cheers him at the top of one’s voice.
Boris Johnson was met with tremendous cheers as he took his seat. He smiled in the manner of a pantomime villain, soaking up the audience’s applause, whether given in mocking or genuine spirit.
Dame Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey) had the first question. She remarked “just how loathed the Prime Minister is, and that’s only in his own party,” and asked: “If 148 of his own backbenchers don’t trust him why should the country?”
If the Labour Party had any sense, it would make Dame Angela its leader. She is short and sharp.
Johnson replied that “in a long political career so far I have of course picked up political opponents all over the place”. He conveyed a tremendous ability to enjoy, indeed to shrug off, the near-death experience of being pushed by 148 of his followers in front of one of the double-decker buses which he himself was responsible for bringing to the streets of London.
“I am still here!” his ebullient demeanour said. “I dodged the bus! I live to fight another day! I love danger and I love the laughter I provoke!”
How could Sir Keir Starmer puncture the monstrous confidence which comes from surviving a no confidence vote?
Sir Keir said he couldn’t work out whether the Tories were cheering or booing, and tried to embarrass the Prime Minister by quoting something or other Nadine Dorries had said.
Johnson was not to be caught that way. He launched into a panegyric to “our amazing NHS” and how it rose to the challenge of tackling “an entirely novel virus”.
Sir Keir complained that the PM had “promised 6,000 new GPs” and “can’t keep that promise”.
Johnson retorted, “I’m afraid he’s simply wrong,” and quoted figures for new doctors (not, one noted, for GPs), doctors in training, nurses, and “from memory” various enormous sums which have been poured into the NHS.
Sir Keir grew more and more verbose. He referred to Jesse Norman’s attack on the PM, but did not make it the subject of a question.
Dame Angela would have gone for the jugular. Sir Keir (why do so many of these Labour figures have titles?) went on for so long that the Prime Minister’s evasions became invisible.
“This line of criticism is satirical,” Johnson said, and pointed out that Labour had voted against higher spending on the NHS and social care, and against the tax rise which is supposed to pay for it.
“This line of attack is not working,” Johnson added a few moments later.
But one should in justice add that his defence was not working with all of his own MPs. Two rows behind him sat a hunched and sombre figure.
She wore a bright red suit, but her face was pinched and miserable. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, found it almost unbearable to have to listen to this Falstaff of a PM demonstrating that he had yet again got away with it.
Ian Blackford, for the SNP, said that week after week he had been greeted by a “wall of noise” from the Tory benches, “but all this time, Mr Speaker, it comes out that 41 per cent of them have been cheering me on”.
A good line, but Johnson has realised that the best way to confound Blackford is to speak of him with affection, and to hail him as “the Araldite that is keeping our United Kingdom together”.
What a change from the atmosphere on Monday, when the PM was in mortal danger. Nothing like a near death experience to make one feel how good it is to be alive.