Boris Johnson entered the Commons chamber to audible boos today ahead of Prime Minister’s Questions, which set the scene for the tense session that followed. Keir Starmer had a clear goal in his line of questioning: to ensure that every Tory MP was associated closely with the scandal and chaos currently consuming the government. Many of the Labour leader’s contributions were delivered to an almost silent chamber – a significant contrast to the usually raucous Tory benches and revealing of the current mood within the Conservative Party.
Starmer quoted from the account given by the man allegedly sexually assaulted by former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, telling MPs that his story is a “reminder to all those propping up this Prime Minister just how serious the situation is”. He demanded that Johnson explain why he chose to appoint the Tory MP to the whips’ office despite reportedly calling him “Pincher by name, Pincher by nature”. The Prime Minister admitted that a previous allegation against Pincher in 2019 had been raised with him but claimed that it had been “resolved”, though he added: “I greatly regret that he continued in office.”
“No denial,” Starmer noted, emphasising that where Johnson said “resolved” he really meant “upheld”. Gesturing to the Tory benches as a whole, the Labour leader said: “And they’re all sitting there as if this is normal behaviour.” He highlighted the comments made by Tory whip Sarah Dines, who reportedly asked the alleged victim if he was gay when he complained about Pincher. When he said he was, she told him: “That doesn’t make it straightforward.” Starmer said the comment “will sicken anyone who’s experienced sexual assault and then been made to feel that they somehow asked for it” and demanded that Johnson apologise.
“In hindsight, Mr Speaker, I should have realised that he would not change,” Johnson admitted. Starmer shot back: “Doesn’t that just sum him up? Awful behaviour, unacceptable in any walk of life. It’s there for all to see but he ignores it.” The Labour leader hit on the crux of his argument in this response, declaring that Johnson’s approach had been the same throughout the various scandals that have occurred during this leadership, including Owen Paterson’s resignation, the accusations of bullying made against Priti Patel and the ‘partygate’ row. Turning the spotlight back on Tory MPs, Starmer said: “Anyone quitting now after defending all that, hasn’t got a shred of integrity.” He quipped that it was the “first recorded case” of the “sinking ships fleeing the rat”.
Perhaps the most damning moment of the whole session was the response to Johnson’s reply. “He should hear what his lot say about him,” he joked, to minimal reaction from his benches. Even his usual failsafe of bashing Jeremy Corbyn elicited few jeers from Tory MPs. “What a pathetic spectacle,” Starmer responded. He shifted his criticism to the Conservative frontbench, describing them as the “charge of the lightweight brigade” and a “z-list cast of nodding dogs”, and urged them to “have some self-respect”.
“The only way the country can get the fresh start it deserves is by getting rid of the lot of them,” Starmer concluded in an obvious pitch to voters. Johnson closed with a pitch of his own, aimed at his party. He told MPs that the government is “going to continue to deliver on the mandate I was given,” tying the Conservative victory in 2019 to his own electability.