Boris Johnson today stepped forward as the champion of common sense, a term he repeated at frequent intervals.
Sir Keir Starmer’s face betrayed scornful incredulity. When he rose, he said people needed “clarity”, but had instead been presented with “considerable confusion”.
The Leader of the Opposition wished to know whether “the safety guidelines” will be “ready for Wednesday, which realistically means tomorrow”, for otherwise people will be “required to operate to guidelines that don’t yet exist”.
What was the Prime Minister to do? Those of us who suspected he might have laid an ambush for Starmer, and would suddenly reveal a vast stockpile of up-to-the-minute guidelines which could be accessed at the touch of a computer key, were proved wrong.
Johnson thanked Starmer for his questions, “and the spirit in which he has raised them”, and proceeded to answer none of them. The PM instead urged us all to “apply good solid British common sense”.
While making his statement, and giving his answers, he took frequent swigs from a glass of water. It seems likely that even if he wished to burn the midnight oil in order to collect and harmonise the details demanded by Starmer, Johnson is not in a fit state to do so.
But he has in any case decided he will not fight on the ground chosen by his opponent. He will not endorse the doctrine of an omniscient state, capable of drawing up guidelines which spare us the need to make prudent decisions in the light of the difficult circumstances we ourselves face.
Everyone understands, Johnson declared, “what we are trying to do together”. At this, some of the sprinkling of Conservative backbenchers in the Chamber nodded, while others remained motionless.
None, however, tried to puncture him by making a disloyal intervention – something which is in any case harder in this almost deserted Chamber than it would be normally.
Andrew Rosindell (Con, Romford) suggested “true bulldog spirit” would be of value in drawing up “his post-Covid economic plan”.
Johnson agreed that “the spirit of Romford will certainly be animating the recovery”.
Ian Blackford, speaking from Skye for the Scots Nats, said that “in order to urgently re-establish clarity” he would pose five questions.
The PM proceeded to deride these questions by answering “Yes” or “No” to three of them, with no further explanation, and went on: “there is far, far more that unites the United Kingdom than divides it, though I know there is always the political temptation to accentuate the divisions”.
Liz Savile Roberts, for the Welsh Nats, claimed, “and I mean this with no malice”, that Johnson was “acting as the Prime Minister of England”.
“No, Mr Speaker,” Johnson said, and insisted he was offering “very good advice for the whole people of the United Kingdom”.
The PM today offered a choice to the people of the UK between a good-natured, rather fuzzy unity, expounded by himself, and division, sown by his detail-obsessed opponents.