Boris Johnson began by referring to “a heavily contested election”. Could he be about to trespass into the affairs of certain benighted colonies which went their own way in 1776?
No. He was about to tell a joke. He meant the election “a year ago to the day” in which Sir Lindsay Hoyle was chosen as Speaker of the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister thanked Sir Lindsay “for making the Speakership great again”. Here was a pretty piece of flattery, and the Speaker – who on Monday was enraged with him for not telling the Commons first about the new lockdown – could not forbear to laugh.
What unscrupulous use of charm. The PM is a seducer. John Wilkes, an eighteenth-century libertine and liberal for whom Johnson feels a vast admiration, used to boast that it took him half an hour to talk away his face, and make some beautiful woman his mistress.
Johnson set out to seduce his fellow parliamentarians. Few of them, of either sex, can be described as beautiful.
Nor, in general, do they compensate for their lack of personal attractiveness by using beautiful language or creating beautiful houses.
So far as one can see – and in this age of public speaking by video link from one’s own home one can often see – they possess wretched taste in interior decoration.
It is possible that in order to avoid exciting the envy of their constituents, they have selected the least charming corners of their homes from which to broadcast to the nation.
But the pictures on the walls are dismal, the ornaments mean, and worst of all, the bookcases are often half-empty, a state of affairs which never endures for long in any household that loves books.
Sir Keir Starmer was present in person, and determined not to be seduced. “I just want some basic honesty,” he said.
This wholesome ingredient was not on offer. Johnson was in no mood to provide basic anything. Like Wilkes, he takes a more sophisticated approach.
He rose above Sir Keir, called on him to “put aside party political wrangling and point-scoring”, and accused him of using the crisis “as an opportunity to make political capital”.
Sir Keir should instead imitate “the former member for Sedgefield”, and former Labour Leader, who, according to the PM, “broadly supports” the Government’s approach in an article for today’s Daily Mail.
Let Sir Keir “take a leaf out of the Blair book”. By now Sir Keir himself was laughing. Though not actually seduced, he had failed to impose a high moral tone.
The PM proceeded to be elaborately polite towards almost every Labour backbencher who raised some point. To Chi Onwurah (Lab, Newcastle upon Tyne Central), who raised the dreadful financial predicament of a coach operator in her constituency, he said: “I’ll do my best to oblige her.”
But when Kelly Foy (Lab, City of Durham) brought up Dominic Cummings’ visit to Durham, and accused the PM of having “a blind spot that even a trip to Barnard Castle can’t fix”, Johnson deplored “constant party-political point scoring”.
In the speech with which, soon after PMQs, he opened the debate on the lockdown, Johnson continued to call for national unity, thanking the public for responding “magnificently and selflessly”, “bearing any burden” (an echo of JFK), even accepting any inconsistency, so “they can do the right thing”.
Johnson, in short, was unscrupulous enough to sound as moral as Sir Keir, but in a more amusing way. So when the Speaker rebuked Andrew Murrison (Con, Westbury) for reading a newspaper during the PM’s speech, Johnson leapt to Murrison’s defence and said “it’s absolutely right for honourable members to consult relevant documents that may contain information to the advantage and betterment of the House”.
The Speaker suggested Murrison had been reading the horoscope. Johnson to Murrison: “I can assure my honourable friend that his future is rosy.”
Johnson offers, after the travails of the forthcoming lockdown, a rosy future to us all, or at least some lighter moments on our way to the grave. With this prospectus, resorted to by seducers down the ages, he dominated a House many of whose members, on both sides of the House, regard him as unprincipled and incompetent.