An affecting reconciliation scene was enacted today in the House of Commons. It was between the Prime Minister and all those whom he enraged and insulted as recently as Wednesday of last week.
Boris Johnson established, in those exchanges, a reputation, in his critics’ eyes, as a bully and a brute, whose irresponsible language inflamed an already dangerous situation and showed a despicable disregard for the threats faced in particular by women MPs.
But Johnson has throughout his life made every effort to mend fences with those to whom he has given mortal offence. Not for him the festering grievance, the angry silence, the lasting grudge. He always wants to make it up.
So today we got Johnson the peacemaker, making “a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm, to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable”.
He set out to be “constructive and reasonable”, agreed it is ” to the credit of our European friends that they have accepted the need to address these issues”, spoke of the need for “a spirit of friendship and sensitivity” in order to settle any remaining difficulties in Ireland, “minimise any disruption” and “open a new chapter of friendship with our European neighbours”.
Jeremy Corbyn refused to accept anything has changed. He accused the Government of wanting “a Trump deal Brexit”, and asserted that “no Labour MP could support such a reckless deal”.
Would Johnson allow himself to be riled? Might he retort that he already knew of quite a number of Labour MPs who could well support his deal?
Not a bit of it. The Prime Minister declared with statesmanlike restraint that he was “disappointed” by “some of the tone” of the Leader of the Opposition’s comments.
Johnson added that it was quite “reasonable” for Corbyn to ask about the standards of “environmental and social protection” which the UK will maintain after leaving the EU.
He assured the Labour leader that these standards would be “the highest in the world”, and added that once we have left, we would be able to do various things we cannot do while remaining in the EU, such as ban “the cruel export of live animals”.
The Prime Minister hoped Members across the House would support that measure. He did not allude, as he would have done if he had been in a different mood, to the desire of many Labour MPs to export Corbyn to Venezuela.
Ian Blackford, for the SNP, dismissed the Government’s proposals as “a plan designed to fail”, and once again, Johnson was “slightly disappointed by the tone” of his remarks.
The Democratic Unionists were not in the Chamber. Lady Hermon (Independent Unionist, North Down) said the DUP, which looks with favour on the Government’s proposed deal, does not represent the majority of people in the province, and Johnson’s plan “proves quite clearly that he does not understand Northern Ireland”.
Did Johnson bridle? Not a bit of it. He promised to “abide by every clause and principle of the Good Friday Agreement”, and said he would be “more than happy to meet with the Right Honourable Lady” to go through his proposals with her.
Here was Johnson the salesman, anxious to meet each potential customer and seal the deal. He said he would be “more than happy” to meet Yvette Cooper (Lab, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford), Ben Bradshaw (Lab, Exeter), who had accused him of wanting to turn Northern Ireland into “a smugglers’ paradise”, and Patricia Gibson (SNP, North Ayrshire and Arran), who accused him of seeking to “blame the EU for his failure”.
Pat McFadden (Lab, Wolverhampton South East), an expert on the EU, was praised by the Prime Minister for making “a legitimate point”.
Praise rained down on the Prime Minister from his own benches. Conservatives of the most varied hues acclaimed his statesmanship.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Con, Worthing West) called on the Prime Minister to “rescind the withdrawal of the Conservative Whip” from the 21 Tory MPs who voted for the Benn Bill, which seeks to avert a no deal Brexit.
Johnson did not go quite that far. He said “the consequences of the Surrender Act” – as he prefers to call it – “are very serious for our ability to negotiate”.
But he added that the aim now is “to bring the whole country together and bring the House together – that would be the best way forward”.
Peace has broken out, and the vehemence of Johnson’s behaviour last week makes the change in his demeanour all the more welcome to many though by no means all MPs.
The frustrations of the last three years have created an almost universal desire to get Brexit over and done with, and here is Johnson the salesman promising he can take care of it all, and mend the divisions which rend the country.