It was hardly standing room only, as there were still one or two gaps to be seen. But the Conservative benches were a great deal fuller for prime minister’s questions than they had been last week. Not that all the Tory MPs looked too thrilled to have been strong-armed by the whips into making a Commons appearance in a veneer of enthusiasm for an accident-prone leader. Though they shouted and brayed in all the right places, there was something mechanical about the whole exercise. A try-hard play with all passion spent.
Nor was all entirely well on the frontbench. There’s not much love lost between Rishi Pig and Boris Pig, with both sides spending most of their time briefing against each other, and the chancellor had carefully made sure there were the maskless Liz Truss and Priti Patel between him and the prime minister.
The best laid plans, etc. Moments after Johnson had entered the chamber, the chief whip, Mark Spencer, had shoved Liz Pig aside and gestured for Sunak to take her place. Sunak duly obliged, though with little enthusiasm. The prospect of having to try to look loyal for the TV cameras for 30 minutes didn’t much appeal.
Keir Starmer began with the government’s amendment to its social care bill. Those who were less well-off, with houses worth about £100,000, would lose almost all of their assets if they needed to move into a care home, while the better off would lose a far smaller percentage. This was a broken promise. The Labour leader said this as if it was a matter of fact, rather than a question.
Which it was, though this didn’t stop Boris Pig from lying through his teeth. No one was ever going to be made to sell their homes, he insisted. Starmer had got the wrong end of the stick. Everyone could definitely stay in their homes, provided they were still able to stay in their homes. What could possibly be fairer than that?
And if they couldn’t stay in their own homes, the government was doing the poor people a favour by getting them to flog their homes. It was a kindness to the little people for them to have the decision to sell their homes made for them. After all, they couldn’t take their old homes with them to the care home. In any case, it was all the fault of the Attlee government. Or something. At times like this, Johnson doesn’t need to lose his place for 20 seconds to look lazy and stupid. He manages just fine as it is.
The Tory MPs cheered dutifully, though part of them must have died a little more inside. The more sensitive and self-aware MPs are now little more than husks. Running on fumes. Any pretence at representing a party that keeps its promises long since gone.
Starmer kept banging away with good soundbites. The new social care bill was a working-class dementia tax. The Tories were pickpocketing the poorest in society, first by getting them to pay more in tax and national insurance and then by getting them to flog their homes to pay for their care. All Boris could manage by way of reply was to bounce up and down on his feet, wave his arms wildly and talk nonsense.
This was about as much as some Conservative MPs could take. Enough was enough. They had done their bit for party unity and a few started to drift away, with gaps beginning to emerge on the green benches. Others stayed to make life unexpectedly uncomfortable for Johnson. Would the government commit to keeping its 2019 manifesto, asked the usually loyal David Evennett. Given that it had already broken promises on social care, pensions and railways, this seemed like a fair question. But imagine a Tory MP having to ask a prime minister if he was honest.
Daniel Kawczynski and Mike Penning raised problems with hospitals in their constituencies, apparently bewildered that Johnson’s promises to fix the NHS had so far proved hollow. Miriam Cates wondered when the government would get its act together and roll out early years learning programmes. Presumably when it realises it was the Tories who cut Sure Start. Boris Pig looked round to congratulate Andrea Leadsom for all her work trying to undo her own party’s mistakes. Only Leadsom had long since headed out the chamber.
“Is everything OK, prime minister?” Starmer had concluded. It wasn’t, of course. Though this was somewhat beside the point. The Labour leader still seems to think that if you confront Boris Pig with reality for long enough then you will eventually break through his denial and get him to accept the truth. No chance.
It doesn’t work like that. Johnson and reality have never been on speaking terms. He believes what he wants to believe and for now the Tories will indulge him, as the hassle of removing him is greater than the damage he is causing.
Then, he has always been indulged by family and friends. Up until the time his failings become unforgivable. What will destroy Boris is Boris. The entropy hardwired into the promises he cannot keep. The hospitals and railways that don’t get built. The houses that get sold for care. Inflation. Brexit. Things may be falling apart. But the end is not yet in sight.
John Crace and Zoe Williams will be live on stage in London at a Guardian Live event on 13 December. Join the conversation in-person or online by booking tickets here
A Farewell to Calm by John Crace (Guardian Faber, £9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
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