“A majority is always better than the best repartee.” So said the greatest and wittiest parliamentarian ever to lead the Conservative Party, a statesman who could disguise headlong retreat as triumphant advance: Benjamin Disraeli.
Boris Johnson came to the House today with a stonking majority. He had repartee at his command too, but the majority is what matters.
Many of the best judges had predicted his Brexit negotiations would fail. Five former Prime Ministers had denounced his tactics. Deadline after deadline had passed without agreement.
Yet here he was, certain in this afternoon’s vote to gain a vast majority, with his own party’s sternest and most unbending Eurosceptics declaring themselves satisfied by his Christmas Eve deal, but set to be joined in the division lobby by the Leader of the Opposition, and by as many Labour MPs as accept Sir Keir Starmer’s instruction to vote for the deal.
What a triumph, to have resolved the choice into one where even devout Remainers have to support him, and only the Scottish Nationalists, who had hoped and prayed for no deal, would vote in substantial numbers against him.
Johnson avoided triumphalism. The last thing he wanted to do was to shatter the consensus he had created by striking a partisan note.
He communicated instead an impregnable benevolence. Every so often he could not help breaking out in a smile of pure enjoyment, like a schoolboy who has managed to get his hands on an enormous chocolate cake.
Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, tried to disconcert him, by objecting that Johnson refers to the Scottish Nationalist Party, when actually it is the Scottish National Party.
Johnson remained undisconcerted, indeed amused: he remarked ingeniously that he uses the word “nationalist” with a small “n”.
The Prime Minister proceeded to show he is now on the best of terms with everyone else, including Ursula von der Leyen and Michel Barnier. He thanked “all our European friends for their pragmatism and foresight”, and assured them that they could look forward to “a fantastic new relationship” with “a prosperous, contented” United Kingdom which is “at once European and sovereign” and will be “the best friend and ally the EU could have”.
“We were told we could not have our cake and eat it,” Johnson added, looking more than every like a schoolboy with a cake so enormous that however much he eats of it himself, and however much he shares with the friends now crowding around him, there will always be more.
In any election campaign you will find most of the candidates assuring the voters, “You can have your cake and eat it.”
For that is what most people long to believe, and it is certainly what Johnson loves to tell them, though not at excessive length, for that way boredom lies. In under half an hour he sat down.
Sir Keir swallowed his bitter medicine with good grace, while declining to swallow some of the Prime Minister’s more exuberant assurances.
“Will there be no non-tariff barriers to trade?” Sir Keir demanded. So we still have a functioning Opposition.
But the day belonged to Johnson. In the autumn of last year, he had no majority in the Commons, and the Remainers sought at every turn to confound him.
Now they have been forced to surrender, and he has a huge parliamentary majority.
It probably won’t last: these things seldom do. But this morning one could not blame him for looking like a schoolboy with a cake of quite extraordinary dimensions.