Major Sulk enters his darkest hour as rank and file desert him

Out of desperation more than anything else, Boris Johnson has taken to calling Keir Starmer “Captain Hindsight”. Even when the Labour leader is making predictions about what will happen next. But in the Commons debate on the new coronavirus tiers, the prime minister revealed a new persona for himself: Major Sulk.

John Crace

You could tell Johnson wasn’t a happy bunny from the off, because he arrived looking a total mess. More often than not, Boris’s appearance is less art than artifice. He hopes that appearing shambolic will make people think he’s not too bothered. That he’s the Mister Good Time Guy on whom you can rely for a joke. Except no one is laughing any more. Least of all Boris. His bedraggled, slumped demeanour was not a sign that he wasn’t bothered. Rather it was the opposite. He couldn’t bear for his public to see just how much he did care. Not for the country, obviously. But for himself.

Up till now, the Great Narcissistic Sulk has never really given a toss about his rank-and-file backbenchers. He didn’t even know the names of three-quarters of them. But this was the day he came to realise the one-way love affair was over and the magic had worn off for a significant number of the Conservative parliamentary party. MPs willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because he had managed to win an 80-seat majority now realised they had bought a dud. A prime minister who at a time of crisis could be relied on to let you down.

Johnson’s opening speech was a lazy, badly argued ramble through the familiar arguments he had been making over the past week. He began by listing the positives of the new regime – hairdressers, gyms and round-the-clock shopping – insisting that the evidence for reopening them had been taken with granular thoroughness. Despite the fact that his economic impact assessments, released at the last minute the previous day, bore a closer resemblance to something knocked up on the back of cigarette packet.

He then went on to say that no one should take Christmas for granted. Only that was precisely what he was doing by granting a five-day Christmas amnesty that could turn into a New Year killing zone. He also promised an extra £1,000 to every pub that didn’t serve scotch eggs as a sop to the Tory malcontents. Or beer money, as Keir Starmer scathingly described it. The longer Boris spoke the emptier his words became. By the end he was running on fumes.

In reply, the Labour leader merely voiced what was on everyone’s mind. We’d all been here before on several occasions with Johnson, but every time he had let the country down. He had been too late to lock down initially; he had ignored Sage’s advice for a circuit breaker in September; he had introduced a tiering system that was soon proved to be hopelessly inadequate; Typhoid Dido’s track and trace had been a joke. He had promised the pandemic would be over by the summer. And then by Christmas.

Now we were clinging on for dear life waiting for the vaccines to save us. So why should anyone believe a word the prime minister said when it looked as though the new tiers were guided by what Boris could smuggle past enough of his backbenchers rather than by the science. A third national lockdown in January was all but an inevitability. And in the meantime, where was the financial help for the hospitality sector and the self-employed? As so often, Johnson had over-promised and under-delivered.

Even so, something had to be better than nothing. So Labour would be abstaining to make sure everyone’s main focus was on the number of Tory rebels. Yet again then, Starmer would be giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt and putting the government on notice. It’s been on notice for a while now. There would come a time when Keir would have to say enough was enough and vote against the government on its handling of the coronavirus. But now was not the right time.

The rest of the debate was dominated by unhappy Tories, either promising to rebel or to vote reluctantly for the government. Bernard Jenkin, after listing all the many faults in the new tiering system, sadly concluded that he would vote for Boris. Out of pity as much as anything else. Others were less forgiving, demanding more localised banding of tiers and proof that the hospitality industry was the root of all Covid evils. Steve Baker even went so far as to demand expert evidence. This from the MP who happily ignored both experts and evidence during numerous Brexit debates. Better a sinner who repenteth, I suppose.

It was Chris Grayling who delivered the real coup de grace by saying that he was “very concerned”. When you’ve lost the trust of Failing Grayling, who has cost the taxpayer more than £3bn in a ministerial career of unrivalled uselessness, then you’ve lost the soul of the Tory party.

With Labour abstaining, the vote itself was a formality, the motion passing with a majority of 213. But with 56 Tories voting against him and more abstaining, this was Boris’s darkest hour. One from which he may never recover. Many of us saw through Johnson long ago. An opportunist chancer only interested in self-glorification. Now it looks as if the mist has lifted from the eyes of many of his own benches. Enough for him never to take a vote again for granted. What goes around, comes around.