The Prime Minister’s appearance in the chamber of the House of Commons at lunchtime today is one of the most eagerly anticipated parliamentary events of his turbulent premiership. The Prime Minister and presumably many others on the government benches hoped the story of the Downing Street party last December would quickly disappear but that has certainly not been the case. The fact that no government ministers were available to appear on any of the national news programmes this morning has only heightened the anticipation and thrown the spotlight firmly on the Prime Minister.
What then can we expect from today’s PMQs and what should we be looking for?
Will Conservative MPs turn up? One quick indication about the level of support for the Prime Minister will be whether his own MPs turn up in large numbers to lend support. The Prime Minister performs better with a friendly and rowdy audience at his back but it is clear that many Conservative MPs are not happy with his handling of recent events. At recent PMQs Conservative MPs have voted with their feet by not turning up for PMQs, leaving large gaps on the government benches behind the Prime Minister. It will be interesting to see whether the Ministerial no-shows on the media this morning is reflected in the chamber today.
Will the Prime Minister make an announcement ahead of PMQs? One possible scenario is that the Prime Minister will seek to steal the Leader of the Opposition’s thunder by making an announcement about the Downing Street party in advance of today’s PMQs. He could come clean, admit that there was some form of gathering (the use of the word party is unlikely), that no rules were broken but concede that it shouldn’t have happened. The Prime Minister seems pathologically incapable of apologising so that seems unlikely but several individuals within Downing Street may be asked to resign. Alternately he could announce some form of investigation, perhaps by the Cabinet Secretary, to settle the matter, enabling him to bat away questions in the chamber on the grounds that he will await the results of the investigation before commenting further. None of these approaches, aside perhaps from a fulsome apology, are likely to mean that the Prime Minister won’t be challenged on this issue today, but they may make it easier for him to evade more questions and perhaps make it more difficult for the Leader of the Opposition to criticise the PM. If the announcement is made only shortly before PMQs, Keir Starmer’s job will be even more difficult.
Will the Prime Minister avoid the party question and stick to the line that no rules were broken? The Prime Minister has a habit of pursuing an argument long after his position has become untenable and even the most ardent of supporters have melted away. There is a good chance that he will do the same today by avoiding the question of whether there actually was a party and sticking to the line that at no point were rules broken. Many, particularly on the government benches, have grown tired of this response and just want the Prime Minister to offer a direct response to the question of whether there was a party at Downing Street on the 18th December last year. The Prime Minister may feel that he is able to do a better job of defending this line than those ministers rolled out across the TV networks over the last week but that would be a bold assumption. Moreover, the muddled performance of ministers over the last week coupled with their absence from the networks this morning, has made this position even more untenable.
Will the Prime Minster provide a direct answer to the party question? The tortuous explanation offered by ministers over the last week is a result of the Prime Minister’s decision at a previous PMQs not to answer the direct question of whether a party took place at Downing Street last December. He will almost certainly be asked the question directly again today. Many on the PM’s own benches would desperately like him to answer the question one way or another. The problem for the Prime Minister is that if he admits there was a party, or some form of gathering, it is very difficult for him to claim that Covid rules were not broken. If he chooses to directly answer the question by saying that there wasn’t a party, something which he hasn’t yet done, if further evidence emerges that there was in fact a party he runs the risk of misleading parliament, something which many including on his own backbenches believe would be a resignation issue.
Will the Prime Minister try to get off on a technicality? What perhaps seems more likely is that overnight the Prime Minster will have devised some other argument which allows him admit that something happened which shouldn’t have happened (without using the word party) but that Covid rules were not broken. Ironically the Prime Minister often criticises the Leader of the Opposition for his lawyerly approach at PMQs, but in reality it is the Prime Minister who often relies upon some carefully worded technicality to get him out of trouble. This may work in the short term, but it is unlikely to convince many. The Prime Minister is also a terrible poker player and tends to grin when delivering what he seems to assume are terribly clever but barely tenable responses.
How will the Leader of the Opposition perform? Although this will undoubtedly be a difficult session for the Prime Minister it also presents a significant challenge for the Leader of the Opposition. Today’s PMQs represents an open goal for the Leader of the Opposition but open goals can be notoriously difficult to score. In their book on PMQs, Punch and Judy Politics, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton argue that an open goal is the worst thing the Leader of the Opposition can face at PMQs, and that high profile sessions like today’s often fizzle out. There are a number of problems facing Keir Starmer today, aside from the possibility that the PM may pre-empt his questions by making an announcement in advance of PMQs, the Prime Minister also knows that he is going to be asked about the Downing Street party so will be well prepared. There is also a question about what the opposition want. Simply asking the Prime Minister to apologise seems quite limited in the circumstances, but at the same time demanding his resignation seems over the top, although the SNP leader Ian Blackford, almost certainly will. The best that the Leader of the Opposition can hope for is that the Prime Minister, like a succession of other ministers this week, will tie himself in circumlocutory knots and he can sit back and watch.
Will the Prime Minister resign? The simple answer is no. While there are many who think he should, we are a long way from that. This is part of a much longer process. Conservative polling, which has recently taken a hit following allegations of sleaze relating to the Owen Paterson resignation, is likely to be further damaged, and if the Prime Minister performs badly the real danger is on the benches behind and indeed alongside him.