Never has the Liaison Committee seen such bad feeling. Its members queued up to punch the Prime Minister.
He maintained an air of pugnacity, even of invulnerability. “I can take it,” his demeanour said. He pretended after an hour and 40 minutes that he had “enjoyed” the the punishment he had taken, “difficult though some of the questions have been”.
There was no sense that he was carrying his questioners with him, or even that he was trying to carry them with him.
He did not stoop, and he did not conquer. The best that can be said is that he demonstrated his fighting spirit, his courage in adversity, his returning energy after his illness.
He appeared to proceed on the assumption that any attempt to conciliate his critics would be taken as a sign of weakness, proof that he was on the run.
He was certainly not going to concede a Cabinet Office inquiry into the conduct of Dominic Cummings: the usual way of taking some of the heat out of an occasion like this.
Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the committee, observed that no Prime Minister has been before it for 12 months, i.e. none since Theresa May, and asked Johnson to promise to attend it more regularly.
Here was a chance, if he wished, to offer a small olive branch: to flatter the self-importance of these select committee chairs by pretending nothing would give him greater pleasure than to wait on them three times a year.
The meetings of the Liaison Committee, composed of the MPs who chair the several dozen select committees, are usually almost unbearably dull. I speak as someone who has been asked over the years to sketch quite a few of them, because the Prime Minister is going to be present, and might conceivably say something interesting.
Tony Blair never did. He sat there in his white shirt, flattering various MPs by pretending to take them seriously. One wondered sometimes if he was wearing a thermal vest under his white shirt, for the largest committee room in Portcullis House can be chilly.
Gordon Brown, David Cameron and May were no more interesting than Blair. All of them bored their way to victory, or at least to a draw.
Johnson never bores his way to victory. It is against his principles to be dull. He is a performer who would find it unbearable not to hold his audience’s interest.
Yvette Cooper, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, told him: “The reason you’re not giving people a straight answer is you’re trying to protect Dominic Cummings.”
She accused him of ducking, fudging and placing his political concerns above giving clear public health messages.
Johnson suggested it was time to “lay aside party political point scoring”. But a striking feature of this session was that Conservatives were just as eager as Opposition MPs to give the PM a bloody nose.
Simon Hoare, Greg Clark, Jeremy Hunt, Caroline Nokes, Mel Stride and Huw Merriman were among the Tories who proceeded to do so.
This sort of punishment cannot continue. Johnson’s defiance just annoys people. He will have to find some way to conciliate them.