True to form, the prime minister answered questions when he wanted to and dodged them when he didn’t.
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Boris Johnson clearly doesn’t like appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee.
Earlier this year he cancelled three scheduled appearances and then nobbled the committee by installing a Brexiteer crony, Sir Bernard Jenkin, as chairman, overriding the convention that the committee’s members elect their own chair.
And when the PM did finally turn up, in May, it was a tetchy affair dominated by questions about his maverick adviser Dominic Cummings’s lockdown-busting trip to Durham. Several times Mr Johnson said people should “move on”.
This was the PM’s second appearance at the committee and it was always likely to be dominated by questions on the two big issues currently confronting him: Coronavirus, in particular its economic impact, and Brexit. No pressure, then.
The bad news for the PM was that his interrogators would include some of the most vocal Tory backbench critics of his Internal Market Bill: Tobias Ellwood, Sir Bob Neill and Tom Tugendhat, plus Mel Stride, whose Treasury Select Committee had backed calls by Labour and trade unions for a targeted extension of the furlough scheme.
The proceedings got off to a fairly gentle start for the prime minister, however, as the always-courteous Greg Clark, who chairs the Science and Technology Committee, opened the bowling for the Liaison Committee on coronavirus.
No bouncers or googlies and the PM responded with a pretty straight bat and saw out the opening overs with a series of dot balls.
There were tougher questions when William Wragg, who chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, came on as first change and asked some cryptic questions about ministerial accountability and when ministers should resign.
Looking uncomfortable, the PM was clearly thinking: “Where is this going?” but he managed to see off this line of attack without much trouble, too.
The first openly hostile questions came from Labour’s Cat McKinnell, who chairs the Petitions Committee, on coronavirus anomalies.
She complained that a man could go the pub or go grouse shooting but not attend hospital with a pregnant partner or new mum for a scan.
The PM shut down that line of questioning by saying he would write to her.
Then she switched her attack to testing and the PM’s “rule of six” and asked what he would say to those people who say the government can break the law in a limited and specific way, so why couldn’t they do the same?
This time the PM dodged the question by addressing the committee chairman, his Brexit ally Sir Bernard, instead of the tenacious Ms McKinnell. Rather discourteous.
There were good probing questions too from Julian Knight, who chairs the Culture select committee and complained that theatres were shut because of the government’s rules.
“Hold on,” the PM appeared to be thinking, “I got my whips to tell Tory MPs to vote for this dude and defeat the pesky Remainer Damian Collins in the election for chair of his committee and this is how he repays me.”
But the doughty Mr Knight showed he was no stooge and ploughed on by asking about a second national lockdown.
On this there was no obfuscation from the prime minister. No, he said. That would be disastrous.
Then came a bruising clash for the PM with Labour’s Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee and asked about testing in a brusque manner. “I’m surprised you have taken such a hostile tone,” said the PM, feigning offence. “You set the target!” she shot back at him. A bone-crunching exchange.
Another Tory, Neil Parish, a Somerset farmer with a West Country accent as fruity as a strong cider, went into bat for farmers with detailed questions about tariffs.
The PM tried the chummy approach with him, calling the Environment Committee chairman “Neil” a few times, in contrast with his terse exchanges with the Labour MPs on the committee.
In part two, on Brexit, the questions immediately started to get trickier for the PM, as Hilary Benn lured him into a trap by asking if the EU was negotiating in good faith.
Not any more, the PM suggested, which contradicted what the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had said at a committee hearing earlier.
Challenged by Mr Benn on the contradiction, the PM then admitted he could be mistaken! A rare admission for this prime minister.
Then came relief for Mr Johnson as the Brexit veteran Sir Bill Cash launched into a long monologue which enabled the PM to sit back in his chair and smile, rolling his eyes at the same time, while the old eurosceptic warhorse used up valuable time, until Sir Bernard Jenkin hurried him along.
A filibuster in a committee hearing? Now there’s a novelty.
After some slapstick exchanges with the SNP’s cheeky chappie Angus MacNeil on Scottish independence, it was the turn of the Internal Market Bill rebel-in-chief Sir Bob Neill.
Would he plunge the dagger on the “law-breaking” Bill? As it turned out, no, and we now know why.
Dapper Sir Bob was certainly razor sharp, but he chose to quiz the PM on the UK losing access to the European Arrest Warrant after Brexit, with the threat of bombers and other terrorists escaping justice.
Not an easy cross-examination from barrister Bob for the PM to deal with. He sounded as though he wasn’t expecting those questions.
The reason Sir Bob avoided the Internal Market Bill became clear an hour after the Liaison Committee meeting ended, when Downing Street hoisted the white flag.
And Number 10 announced it would, after talks with rebel Tory MPs, table government amendments giving MPs a parliamentary lock – effectively a veto – on the overriding of the Withdrawal Agreement, which is exactly what Sir Bob’s own amendment proposes. Big climbdown.
There’s no love lost between the PM and Tom Tugendhat, however.
They have a disdain for each other that dates back to when Mr Johnson was foreign secretary and the former Army officer chaired the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Here they clashed over boycotting sports events to punish Russia and Foreign Office advice on the Internal Market Bill. If he had received advice, he wouldn’t tell his tormentor Tom, the PM said with a menacing smile.
The last scheduled question was from another Johnson critic, Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Defence Committee.
Yet he too launched into a long monologue that earned him a rebuke from an impatient Sir Bernard. There was a bit of a frisson between those two!
Eventually Mr Ellwood urged the PM to “set out what our vision is”, which was an easy question for him to deal with – an opportunity to talk a lot about “global Britain” – as the meeting drew to a close, with Mr Ellwood unwisely treating their exchanges as a debate rather than questions.
The verdict on the session: the prime minister was clearly so desperate to escape that he was on his feet, out of his chair and making a bolt for the door before Sir Bernard had even finished thanking him for turning up.
He comfortably survived his interrogation, however, and – true to form – answered questions when he wanted to and dodged them when he didn’t.
It was also clear which MPs on the committee he respects and those he doesn’t.
And the highlights: the PM claiming the EU is not negotiating in good faith, a second coronavirus lockdown would be disastrous and, finally and bizarrely, his inability to confirm whether a government minister, Scottish law officer Lord Keen, had resigned or not. Conversations were ongoing, said the PM.
Not for long, however. Half an hour after the meeting ended, Number 10 confirmed that Lord Keen had indeed resigned. “Chaos!” screamed the government’s political opponents. Many Tory MPs would probably agree.