PM struggles to keep head above water as barbs from Keir Starmer pierce blubber

John Crace

Boris Johnson appears fearful in latest PMQs that flow of ‘Tory sleaze’ claims may continue

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson responds to Keir Starmer in a socially distanced session of PMQs. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images
Boris Johnson responds to Keir Starmer in a socially distanced session of PMQs. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

Last modified on Thu 15 Apr 2021 03.01 EDT

It’s a tricky balancing act for Boris Johnson. Because much as he must be loving the mess David Cameron has got himself into with the Greensill lobbying saga – Johnson still hasn’t forgiven Dave for doing better than him at school and at Oxford, let alone becoming prime minister before him – he doesn’t want too much of it to stick to him or his cabinet colleagues.

And that’s increasingly becoming easier said than done, what with Cameron having put in hours of overtime to qualify as the one of Westminster’s least effective lobbyists. You have to work really hard to achieve as little as Dave.

“I share his concerns,” said Johnson in answer to Keir Starmer’s opening salvo at prime minister’s questions on whether the lobbying rules were fit for purpose.

But not so much that he was prepared to do much about it. It was vital that civil servants and ministers should be allowed to canvass as many views as possible – especially those of old muckers – and it was a total coincidence that Nigel Boardman, the lawyer who took quite a generous view of the government’s handling of PPE procurement early on in the pandemic, had been chosen to lead the review of the Greensill lobbying scandal.

After that it was all pretty much one-way traffic, with the Labour leader getting all the best lines and Johnson struggling to keep his head above water.

After Starmer had comprehensively outlined the process by which Cameron had gone from PM to PR with access-all-areas to Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock – not so much revolving doors as one door left wide open – all that Johnson could manage by way of reply was that Labour had failed to vote for the government’s previous attempts to clamp down on its own behaviour in 2014. Starmer had to break it to Johnson that Labour voted that way because the proposed rules did not go far enough.

In the past, Starmer’s lawyerly approach to PMQs has not always worked to his advantage, making him sound stilted and awkward. But in what was in effect a legal cross-examination, it went down just fine. So much so that he got away with a joke about the shoplifter’s defence – “Everyone else is nicking stuff, so why can’t I?” – that even induced a few smiles on the Tory benches.

The trouble for Johnson is he knows that lobbying is a totally self-inflicted Conservative wound and that any attempts to deflect it on to Labour are just not going to work.

To make things worse, there seem to be new sleaze allegations coming out on an almost a daily basis, and Johnson clearly has no idea where this could end. When Starmer asked if there were any other lobbying revelations yet to come out, Johnson looked genuinely shaken, as he didn’t know if he was about to be on the wrong end of another curve ball.

“He just wants MPs to mark their own homework,” Johnson said lamely. Which was some cheek from a prime minister who has gone out of his way to mark his own whenever possible.

A Line of Duty gag later – Starmer suggesting Ted Hastings and AC-12 be brought in to investigate corruption in government – and Johnson wound up the interrogation by saying he was in the business of rooting out bent coppers himself. Though not the ones that were too dopey to investigate a potential conflict of interest in Johnson’s largesse towards Jennifer Arcuri when he was London mayor.

This had been Starmer’s strongest showing in months, though it would take more to satisfy his harsher critics, and Johnson appeared rattled and relieved when the Labour leader’s six questions were up.

But even then his discomfort was far from over, as Labour’s Ruth Cadbury asked when he had last spoken to Cameron.

“I can’t remember when I last spoke to Dave,” he said, and he certainly had had no discussions about the Greensill saga. An answer that sounded completely implausible.

Because you’d have thought, with “Dave” being front-page news, he’d have gone out of his way to recall their last conversation. And if he really hadn’t spoken to him about a lobbying crisis, why the hell not?

Greensill scandal is tip of the iceberg of Tory sleaze, says Keir Starmer – video
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Greensill scandal is tip of the iceberg of Tory sleaze, says Keir Starmer – video

In the opposition day debate that followed, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, went in studs up with an even stronger attack on government sleaze and corruption.

It was left to Chloe Smith, who is being treated for cancer at home – so brave of Michael Gove to let one of his deputies take the hit; like Sunak the day before, he had made himself scarce – to defend the indefensible. You know you’ve lost when your best line is that other countries are even more corrupt, but that was all she had.

So the government was not going to vote for a more thorough investigation. Now was not the time to raise our standing in the world. Certainly not when it was by no means clear that Dodgy Dave had not been speaking to several other cabinet ministers and more shit was yet to hit the fan.

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