Johnson makes grave error with tone as confidence of Tory MPs seeps away

Sue Gray update seemed to buy the PM time until he decided to switch gear in parliament

British prime minister Boris Johnson faced the House of Commons for questions from opposition leaders and his own Conservative MPs, including former prime minister Theresa May, after the Sue Gray report was released. Video: UK Parliament TV

When Boris Johnson took his seat in the Commons chamber on Monday afternoon, his most loyal supporters lined up on the bench behind him looked confident about his prospects. Sue Gray's decision to release an "update" on her investigation into Downing Street parties rather than the full report offered the timid souls on the Tory benches another opportunity to prevaricate.

The update was worse than many had expected, revealing that the police were investigating 12 gatherings, including one in Johnson's private flat. But it seemed still to buy Johnson some time.

He adopted a contrite tone, telling MPs that he was sorry and that he “got it” and would “fix it” before announcing a reorganisation of the Downing Street operation. It was going down well enough until he switched gear and delivered a campaign-style stem-winder about his accomplishments in delivering Brexit and vaccinating the population.

The prime minister’s tone felt even more out of place when Keir Starmer delivered a perfectly judged speech that began by describing the sacrifices most people made during the pandemic and praising them for it. The Conservative benches were silent and they stayed that way when Starmer denounced Johnson as a man without shame and demanded to know what the MPs who held the prime minister’s fate in their hands were going to do about it.


Far-right falsehood

Johnson responded with a personal attack on Starmer, alleging that he spent most of his time as director of public prosecutions “prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”. Tory MPs may not have known that Johnson was repeating a falsehood propagated by far-right conspiracy theorists but they understood that he was once again striking the wrong tone.

Theresa May stood up to ask if Johnson was not aware of the rules, did not understand them, or thought they did not apply to him. He mumbled that she should wait for the outcome of the police investigation but a few minutes later, former minister Andrew Mitchell said the prime minister no longer had his confidence.

The claque behind Johnson were looking more despondent now but the most devastating intervention was yet to come. It came from Aaron Bell, a Red Wall Conservative who became an MP in 2019, as he described how he drove for three hours to join nine other people at his grandmother's funeral.

“I gave a eulogy and afterwards I did not even go into her house for a cup of tea; I drove back, for three hours, from Kent to Staffordshire. Does the prime minister think I am a fool?” he said.

After almost two hours, Johnson left the chamber with the handful of supporters who were still there and went to address his entire parliamentary party. They met him with the faintest, weariest cheer, their confidence in him seeping away but too timid to strike just yet.