Bang on midday there was a clink-clink of the cathode tubes, and a familiar figure suddenly flickered across TV screens in the Commons.
He was uncharacteristically silent for a while, adopting one of those nervy ‘can you see me?’ smiles that Russian cosmonauts flash when checking in with the Motherland after several months alone in orbit.
Then, with that distinctly caperish voice echoing over the speakers, he launched into a landmark opening spiel: ‘This morning I had virtual meetings with ministerial colleagues and others; in addition to my virtual duties in this House I shall have further such meetings today…’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appearing via video link from 10 Downing Street during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons
Here was Boris Johnson, the first Prime Minister in history to host PMQs via videolink, thanks to his period in enforced isolation.
Yup, that’s right. Just when you thought one Boris was enough, members inside the chamber now had to contend with eight of him dotted around on the various monitors.
Given what a shambles it could have been, we were able to turn this little page in history without a hitch. Technology wise, all went tickety-boo.
If there had to be a criticism, it was that the system might have worked rather too well in the Prime Minister’s favour.
While many assumed he would end up looking like a panicked kidnap victim, he was far more calm and authoritative than usual, hidden away in his private cocoon.
For once, he actually looked in charge. It has to be said that for all Boris’s natural exuberance, the Commons rattles him. By contrast, Sir Keir Starmer was thrown. He was forced to spend most of his time craning his neck upwards at the monitors, as though taking orders from on high.
No longer could he launch himself across the dispatch box with his usual lawyerly aggression. The result was his weakest PMQs thus far.
Sir Keir focused on the PM’s observation that devolution had been ‘a disaster’.
Starmer felt devolution was one of his party’s ‘proudest achievements’, although I suspect that those Labour MPs wiped out over the past 20 years by the SNP’s rise north of the border won’t have been raising a can of McEwan’s in agreement.
Boris pointed out devolution had started out as a ‘sound policy’, but had turned into ‘a mission to break up the UK’, thanks to those ‘Scottish Nationalists’.
He asked Starmer if he hoped to break up the union. ‘Of course I don’t,’ he snapped back. Inside his isolation pod, Boris chuckled at his opponent’s irritation.
Starmer got more traction turning his attention to the generous PPE procurement contracts the Government has been spraying around.
He harried Boris over the Spanish businessman who received £21million for acting as a middleman in the sale of protective gear to the NHS.
Many MPs were forced to spend most of the time craning their necks upwards at the monitors to watch Boris Johnson
Sir Keir said: ‘£21million – I’ll remind the Prime Minister that a few weeks ago he couldn’t find that amount of money for free school meals for kids over half-term.’
Boris winced like a batsmen who’d just taken a fast one to the box. He sucked his lips and slurped his drink. Plain water, sadly. Could have done with something a little peppier. He summoned his trusty friend ‘Captain Hindsight’, pointing out Sir Keir had attacked him when PPE stocks were low, then found a way to attack him when they were high.
He TOLD him: ‘We shifted heaven and earth to get 32billion items of PPE into this country and I’m very proud of what has been achieved.’ A Boris win, but only via a tiebreak.
Before the session’s end, the TV screens produced another first. We heard from Margaret Ferrier (Ind, Rutherglen and Hamilton W), neither seen nor heard from around these parts since she had the SNP whip withdrawn for taking a train to London after testing positive for the virus.
She chose to communicate with the House via audio only. Still hiding her shame, perhaps. And who can blame her?
Entertaining though it may be on occasion, having MPs simply dialling in from home remains wholly unsatisfactory.
We need to get all of them – not just the PM – back into the chamber as soon as possible.