Published:

Hard to remember a more sombre afternoon in the House of Commons. Before Boris Johnson rose to speak, Dominic Raab looked so pale and anxious one wondered if he had slept at all.

Priti Patel was grave and tense, and even Jacob Rees-Mogg had lost his natural ebullience.

Were they here for Johnson’s funeral? No, but at the start of many of the Prime Minister’s replies there was an unaccustomed croak in his voice.

“Firstly I want to say sorry,” he began. He was “sorry for the things we simply didn’t get right…we must look ourselves in the mirror and we must learn.”

No levity, no ridiculing of his critics, could be allowed to cast doubt on the sincerity of this repentance. Here was the Prime Minister in self-sacrificial mode, seeking to show he felt the agony of all those who, because they obeyed the rules, had to leave some family member to die alone.

“I get it and I will fix it,” Johnson declared to Opposition jeers.

Sir Keir Starmer made, as usual, a lucid case, but as usual could bring no extra weight of emotion to bear, and sounded faintly pious.

Theresa May said in her most Anglican tone that the task of the Prime Minister is to “set an example”, and indicated that one way or another, Johnson had failed to do so.

Either he had not read the rules, or he had not understood them, or he thought they did not apply to Number Ten: “Which was it?”

Johnson replied, in as unindignant tone as he could manage, that this was not what Sue Gray’s report had said.

Ian Blackford, for the SNP, accused Johnson of misleading the House, was given every opportunity by the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to withdraw the charge, declined to do so, and had therefore to leave.

It was so evident that Blackford was acting for party advantage that he slightly eased the pressure on Johnson.

Andrew Mitchell (Con, Sutton Coldfield), who was wearing a black tie, increased the pressure again. He remarked that for 30 years he had given “full-throated support” to Johnson, and went on: “I have to tell him he no longer enjoys my support”.

This was perhaps the unkindest cut of all. When Johnson set out in the 1990s to run for the European Parliament, it was Mitchell who in the face of intense pressure kept him on the candidates’ list.

There was a sort of haplessness about Johnson. He could not play his natural game, but had to stand, as it were, in the stocks, and allow himself to be pelted.

Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) described how he had himself obeyed the Covid rules as they pertained to his grandmother’s funeral: “Does the Prime Minister think that I’m a fool?”

What a slap in the face. A considerable number of Conservatives sought to praise Johnson, but none could change the atmosphere of a very grim two hours.