What a strange afternoon. Boris Johnson fulfilled a long-standing commitment to spend two hours in the Boothroyd Room answering questions from the Liaison Committee, while he dealt with his administration outside.
His arrival was heralded by a shout from the corridor outside: “Are you going to resign, Prime Minister?”
The question of the moment, but not immediately repeated, inside the room, where Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (the Liaison Committee made up of the chairmen of the Select Committees), asked, “What are you doing to make sure the food is coming out of the Black Sea?”
And, he added, what peace terms could be reached in Ukraine? What would constitute victory?
“We can’t be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians,” Johnson responded. “That’s for them to decide.”
Here was a Prime Minister who in foreign affairs has secured himself, while in internal affairs his position has collapsed.
“We had the Fertilizer Roundtable,” Johnson said, fielding questions about global food shortages. “There are very few African fertilizer plants.”
In repose, listening to a parliamentarian speak, the Prime Minister seemed somber. As he spoke, he regained his nerve. Angus MacNeil, a Scottish nationalist, brilliantly tried to manhandle him: “Will you be Prime Minister tomorrow?”
Johnson: “Of course, Mr. MacNeil.”
Darren Jones (Lab, North West Bristol): “How’s your week going?”
Johnson said he was going “like many others.”
Jones: “Michael Gove came and told you to quit today?”
Johnson: “I’m not going to give continuous commentary on political events.”
That old standby of the embarrassed politician, but the Prime Minister didn’t sound very embarrassed. He was up to this order. If his future depended on his skills as an interpreter, he would be insured.
William Wragg (Con, Hazel Grove), a longtime rebel, said the occasion “wasn’t much like a show trial in Moscow” but it must be painful for the prime minister.
Johnson insisted with wry politeness but characteristic strength: “I wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.”
When Wragg suggested that gaps appearing in government would be difficult to fill, Johnson replied, “I really think, William, that you are underestimating the talent, energy and ambition of the MPs.”
At this point, the prime minister bristled, saying that most MPs “are moved by the highest motives,” a difficult point for his inquisitors to argue with.
Many of them were driven by a desire to take points from Johnson, but in our glorious adversarial system, this can be represented as one of the highest motives, because it’s called holding government to account.
Wragg tried another thrust: “Are you familiar with the Lascelles Principles?”
Johnson wielded cautiously. He caught the reference to Tommy Lascelles, a courtier who advised successive monarchs but was unprepared in the spur of the moment to endorse the man’s principles.
Wragg explained that these were the cases where the Queen would have the right to refuse a request by the Prime Minister to dissolve Parliament.
Johnson responded, “You’re asking about something that’s not going to happen.” The last thing the country needed was a general election. He wanted the government to continue ruling. He would not be calling elections.
Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda) tried another tack: “Did you say, ‘All the sexual pests are rooting for me,’ or words to that effect?”
Johnson refused to confirm that he had said this, commenting that all sorts of expressions had been attributed to him. He was supposed to have used the word “handsy” in reference to Chris Pincher, the former deputy chief Whip, but that term is not one the prime minister uses.
The Prime Minister had reluctantly concluded that “there is a problem with alcohol” in Westminster, as “some people just can’t drink”.
Bryant: “You’re not going to learn any lessons and you’re not going to change. You’ll be doing this over and over again.”
Johnson, willfully misreading the prediction: “Come to this Committee, yes.”
He later added that he was “getting on with the job,” even though there were “a lot of people who want to throw me off course.”
Sir Bernard Jenkin, Chairman of the Liaison Committee, trying to wrap things up on a consensual note: “I hope you accept that in the end we are all expendable.”
Johnson, accepting the offer: “That’s certainly true. All meat is grass.”