Just before PMQs, Boris Johnson could be seen in the background, standing alone behind the Speaker’s Chair and staring at a folder of notes, like a schoolboy doing last-minute revision before an exam.
That odd camera angle gave way to Johnson at the Despatch Box, behaving now like a schoolboy who wants to cheer his mates, and win the gratitude of the class, by seizing every opportunity to subvert the official curriculum and ridicule the teacher.
Which left Sir Keir Starmer in the unenviable role of humourless pedagogue, setting out to punish a pupil who is deplorably negligent.
Sir Keir began with the loss of “hundreds of thousands of vital criminal records” by the Home Office: “How many criminal investigations could have been damaged?”
Johnson, restive under this interrogation, gave an unsatisfactory reply, so Sir Keir repeated in an even more pious tone: “How many criminal investigations have been damaged?”
A burst of indignation from Johnson, who said he had already answered the question “entirely accurately – we don’t know”.
Sir Keir, by now solemn to the point of tragedy, brandished a letter from the National Police Chiefs Council, and sought to impress on everyone Johnson’s turpitude: “it’s about criminals not being caught and victims not receiving justice”.
Johnson did not think it was about that. He accused Sir Keir of failing “to listen to the answer I’ve just given”, and embarked on the rapid repetition of various figures which a “swift computation” showed Sir Keir had failed to add up correctly.
At this point, Johnson glanced round with a grin at his mates, confident they would be laughing at the teacher.
Just now the Chamber does not contain many mates. There are no packed Tory benches to roar their approval of the PM, or fall silent when the Leader of the Opposition scores a palpable hit.
And all the MPs present, except for those speaking, were wearing masks, except for Sir Desmond Swayne (Con, New Forest East), who to show his disapproval of this attack on our ancient liberties had instead wrapped a gold scarf round the lower part of his face, and lay back in his double-breasted suit in an attitude of utter contempt.
Sir Keir alleged that last March, Johnson had defied calls by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, to close the country’s borders.
Not content with attacking Sir Keir for being unable to do arithmetic, Johnson proceeded to suggest his opponent had often been mad keen on open borders, and was indeed without principle or constancy: it was “like watching a weathervane spin round and round depending on where the breezes are blowing”.
Ian Blackford, appearing by video link for the SNP, accused Johnson of having “cosied up” to Donald Trump. Johnson replied that remaining on good terms with the President of the United States was “part of the job description” for a British Prime Minister.
Blackford then got lost – perhaps his connection went down. The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, instead called Nicola Richards (Con, West Bromwich East), who was at first muted, and then said several times: “Can you hear me?”
The Speaker switched to Sir Ed Davey, for the Lib Dems, who sent his warmest congratulations to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, which will make it a yellow letter day for them.
Blackford’s connection was restored, and he asked about the Uighurs and genocide, a worthy question but posed at such length that the Speaker quite rightly cut him off.
Johnson said “the attribution of genocide is a judicial matter”, but what’s happening to the Uighurs is “utterly abhorrent”.
Andrew Lewer (Con, Northampton South) remarked that “for many years my Right Honourable Friend wrote humorous articles that nevertheless made serious points about individual freedom and the dangers of over-regulation”, and complained that the Department of Health wants to increase the regulations on food advertising.
Johnson replied that he remains “a champion of liberty in all its aspects”, but added that he is himself “the living embodiment of the risks of obesity”.
Here, as Lewer suggested, is a man who can be humorous and serious at the same time – a key aspect of his cakeist approach to life, and one that makes him rather difficult to pin down.