The Prime Minister looked in ebullient good humour as he entered the Chamber at 10.34 p.m. to Tory cheers. He shared a joke with the Brexit Secretary, read over a few lines of his speech, leaped to his feet the moment the Speaker called him at 10.48, and set about ridiculing his opponent as “the first Leader of the Opposition to show his confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.
What Boris Johnson said was less important than the sovereign way he said it. He conducted himself as a man who holds the initiative, because he knows what he wants, whereas the Opposition parties are reduced to the absurd contention that they are desperately impatient to hold a general election, but also to defer any contest.
So Johnson quoted Labour leaflets put out this weekend, “We need a general election now,” accused the party of “preposterous cowardice” for avoiding one, and observed: “The only possible explanation is they fear we will win it.”
At an early stage, Johnson demonstrated his boldness by moving the microphone onto the Despatch Box so the House could hear him better – the sort of thing a well-brought-up Englishman would not dream of doing, for it would seem both risky and rude.
With Johnson, it demonstrated his sense of freedom, his “why not?” approach to things, his fearlessness in the face of whichever authorities run the Commons sound system.
“I will not vote for another delay,” Johnson declared, and sounded as if he meant it.
If Jeremy Corbyn had wished to make the Conservatives laugh at himself, his speech could have been counted a success.
When he announced, “The Prime Minister is running away,” he provoked huge amusement.
Corbyn was soon reduced to accusing the Prime Minister of making “very poor quality posts on social media”. The Prime Minister chuckled. He was at ease, even though his microphone was by now back in its conventional place.
“The Prime Minister is talking up no deal to one wing of his party,” Corbyn said, and offered one of his over-long pauses.
“Chicken wing,” some Tory wag shouted – not a witty intervention, but enough to make Corbyn look a fool for giving the opportunity.
By the end of these exchanges, one could not help feeling Johnson might have done better to keep Parliament sitting continuously, though it is true that allowing more time would make the exchanges less dramatic.
Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, accused Johnson of treating the whole thing “like a game”, and told him sternly, “this is not a student debating society”.
A lot of people will agree with her. She was better than Corbyn, because she sounded as if she believed what she was saying. The Liberal Democrat vote will be swollen by Remainers who wish to vote for the genuine article rather than for a fake.
But on her point that Johnson treats the thing as a game – an accusation made by many people – it should be said that while it is true that a certain playfulness can usually be detected in his utterances, he is serious about winning any game he plays.
He won last night by 293 to 46 votes, which sounds decisive but was insufficient to meet the exacting requirements of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.
More important, he won the debate, made Corbyn looked weak, and reminded everyone that he likes nothing better than to go out in rough weather.