Impudent provocation at every opportunity, producing icy contempt and hysterical denunciations of Dominic Cummings, to a background of cheers, jeers and incredulous laughter.
This was Boris Johnson’s approach at his first Prime Minister’s Questions, which might also be his last. He took no time to get his eye in, but from the first moment set out to infuriate his opponents.
Jeremy Corbyn was dismissed as a “chlorinated chicken” who is “frit” of a general election and leaves his MPs to be “hounded out by anti-semitic mobs”.
Corbyn became angry, raised his game, but could not break the Prime Minister’s flow. Nor could anyone else.
The temptation, faced by a figure like Johnson, is to engage in moral condemnation. His cavalier behaviour seems, to those of a puritanical, roundhead temperament, to place him beyond the bounds of civilised debate.
The most effective attempt at condemnation was made towards the end of PMQs by Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Lab, Slough), a Sikh wearing a red turban, who called on the Prime Minister to apologise for “derogatory and racist remarks” comparing “already vulnerable Muslim women” who wear a hijab to “bank robbers and letter boxes.”
This heartfelt attack produced a prolonged outbreak of clapping on the Opposition benches. But from Johnson it produced the rejoinder that the article in question was “a strong liberal defence of everybody’s right to wear what they want”, and the observation that we now have “the most diverse Cabinet in the history of this country”.
There is no doubt that some of Johnson’s opponents take satisfaction in dismissing him as a racist and indeed as totally untrustworthy.
But this pleasant feeling of moral superiority could lead them to neglect the need to counter Johnson’s argument that he is fulfilling the British people’s instruction, given in the EU referendum, to carry out Brexit, while his opponents seize every opportunity to thwart it.
They might ask themselves why he is so determined to enrage them. Could it be that he wants to distract them from replying to his arguments, by offering them the more tempting target of his character?