Sitting before the Liaison Committee, Boris Johnson gave some toe-curling responses

The Prime Minister cut sorry a figure in Parliament today, bereft of energy and answers

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking on the subject of the Covid-19 Pandemic during a Parliamentary Liaison Committee hearing
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking on the subject of the Covid-19 Pandemic during a Parliamentary Liaison Committee hearing on Wednesday Credit: AFP via Getty Images/AFP via Getty Images

With his taste for rhetoric and bluster, Boris Johnson never seems too comfortable in technocratic environments or sterile committee rooms.

He prefers the cut and thrust of the campaign trail or a full House of Commons, preferably backed by baying Tory MPs.

How, then, would he fare in this, his second grilling of 2020 by the Liaison Committee, Westminster’s fearsome Star Chamber of Select Committee Heads?

The results were at best anaemic, at worst toe-curling. Chairman Sir Bernard Jenkin began by trying to extract from the PM a promise to attend the requisite three sessions.

“I’ll look carefully in my diary and do my utmost to oblige this distinguished committee before Christmas," oiled the Prime Minister with a roguish charm suggestive of someone more at home with liaisons than committees. 

From then on, however, he spoke in repetitive staccato. His repeated expressions of “utmost respect” for most questioners quickly proved tedious. Like the old formula ‘A good question, I’m glad you asked me that’, this was presumably designed to buy vital thinking time.

Another favourite was the word “Alas!”, which he deployed indiscriminately. (“Alas, this disease is increasing again” “Alas! Instant tests at airports can produce false negatives ”). No doubt this is applied to more mundane situations at home. (Out of nappies? “Alas!”)

At times, I almost wondered who the Prime Minister was. “I don’t want a second national lockdown. We are going to do everything in our power to prevent it”, he said, as if locking down a nation happened naturally, like the changing seasons.

Hilary Benn asked if Lord Keen, Advocate General for Scotland, was still in post. "Conversations on that matter are still continuing" said the PM, as if he were either absent or merely a passive participant in them. (In fact he must have been, since within minutes of the hearing’s end, we heard that Keen had gone). When taxed on the Government’s target of 10 million tests a day, he claimed not to recognise the figure. 

Could there, in fact, be multiple Borises in play? In a futuristic power-sharing agreement, perhaps the Boris of last week who spoke so ambitiously of Operation Moonshot had been given the day off to read Virgilian eclogues and recharge his batteries, leaving one of the clones to face the wrath of the Liaison Committee?

This was, after all, an unenviable gig. Two hours of verbal mauling from all sides, plus some boorish heckling from Angus MacNeil of the SNP, who had presumably forgotten Bonaparte’s memo “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”.

Particularly strident questioning came from Meg Hillier and Catherine McKinnell of Labour; their red dresses presaging violence.

“What are you going to do to support the children who are kept off school?”, asked Meg Hillier, emanating the cold fury generally only encountered at school after incidents proceeding lines, detention and a letter to your mother.

How can it be easier, pierced McKinnell, "for an expectant father to go to the pub or grouse shooting than to attend his own baby’s growth scans?”

"We are looking at that”, answered the PM, evidently desperate to escape to the remotest grouse moor he could find.

This was a low-wattage Prime Minister bereft of energy and answers. Perhaps in a hanger somewhere, the old Merrie England Boris – orator, despiser of the surveillance state – lies dormant, waiting to take back control from his technocratic interlopers.

Alas! Probably not.