Without his frontbench cheerleaders, Johnson has nowhere to hide | Marina Hyde

Does anyone know if Boris Johnson knows stuff about classics? Ancient world, that sort of thing? It’s so difficult to tell with a man who wears his learning as lightly as the prime minister does. But we must ask after a distressing – and distressingly well-sourced – report in the Financial Times suggesting that the reason senior Tories want all MPs to return to sitting in parliament like, yesterday, is because they feel their man does better when he’s backed up at the dispatch box by the only set of cheerleaders in the world you wouldn’t want to have sex with (I’m very slightly paraphrasing their comments). Poor prime minister. I believe the same thing happened in the Athenian agora to Socrates, who came across as a stuttering haystack unless he was supported by serried ranks of inadequates screaming “no, YOU are!” at his debating opponents.

Anyway, given that Johnson is our Churchill – the insurance dog version – perhaps it was inevitable that he would need a few nodding dogs on the frontbench next to him. All governments seek to disguise their own shortcomings, which is also why this one refuses to countenance a Brexit extension despite the vast economic shock of the coronavirus. Far from taking pause, the Conservatives are embracing the timing with the sweaty gratitude of a guy who knows that the unfortunate fire at a storage unit facility will take care of the corpse he’s been storing there.

For now, Johnson’s chief danger zone seems to be his weekly encounters with Labour leader Keir Starmer at prime minister’s questions. Like me, you probably don’t watch this show on the regular, but I was stuck with it this Wednesday, having exhausted almost all other forms of TV content during the lockdown. First impressions – and no spoilers please, if you’re ahead of me on the boxset – is that the House of Commons now has all the atmosphere of the Emirates, but in a good way. It leaves those at the dispatch box with nowhere to hide, which will reflexively discomfit a prime minister who has never entered a bedroom without first checking if there’s a wardrobe.

That said, it’s only right to include the opposing view from the senior No 10 adviser whose judgment was “Keir Starmer is the one who was rattled.” There is, of course, no objective reality, so by all means feel free to get behind this version, where forensic answerer Johnson made light work of the former director of public prosecutions. It does, however, seem more likely that the opposite version is believed by some, given that not one but three Conservative MPs on Thursday shared a far-right video that used fakery to attempt to discredit Starmer. Well done, Nadine Dorries, Lucy Allan, and Maria Caulfield, who eventually deleted their tweets but were in all cases too small and wet to apologise. As health minister, Nadine won’t have a lot on at the moment, so who can blame her for passing the time sharing far-right content on the old Twitter website? But I’d urge her to use it to look into the possibility of simply no-platforming Starmer if she is upset by the things he’s saying.

As for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s idea that parliament should “set an example” to the nation by returning to work before the test, trace and isolate infrastructure has been set up … it’s one way of looking at it. A lot of people say they now watch all TV dramas and have moments where they catch themselves thinking that the characters aren’t socially distancing. I’m not quite there yet. But given that two MPs have already ended up fighting for their lives in intensive care units, I do think that were I to watch a prime minister’s questions done in the old style, my mind would promptly slow it down to the speed of one of those science videos showing how a sneeze travels.

Picture it now – the great clouds of microscopic droplets being atomised as Iain Duncan Smith turns up his volume again. The strings of mucus arcing gracefully through the air in balletic accompaniment to an absolutely vital interjection concerning this or that honourable gentleman. The festoons of saliva hanging in grateful service to some point with which the prime minister is being invited to agree. The ability to watch in real time London’s R rate rising to nine in the cause of Rees-Mogg being able to bray “frit, sir!” at a female shadow minister. Too important not to be worth it, surely.

Once they’d finished, I’d like the chamber cleared, the electric lights switched off, some ultraviolet lights switched on, and Speaker Lindsay Hoyle to go around, CSI style, pointing at the various stains and trace fluids spattered across the green benches, like a Jackson Pollock work entitled The Spread of Democracy. We’ve got to have something to watch, after all, and it might as well be parliament setting one sort of example or another.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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