Many politicians are fond of quoting the Michelle Obama slogan, ‘when they go low, we go high’, and it could have been tailor-made for Jeremy Corbyn, who throughout his leadership of the Labour party has mostly stuck to his principle of never engaging in personal attacks. As my colleague Heather Stewart reported in an article about Labour’s general election campaign, when Corbyn was asked if he had managed to land a blow on Boris Johnson, he appeared horrified by the very notion. “I’m not a boxer!” he replied.
Well, today Corbyn did go low – and it worked. In a question about the deportation of foreign offenders to Jamaica this week, including some who first came to the UK when they were children, he referred to Johnson’s admission that he had taken cocaine in his youth, as well as the fact that when Johnson was a journalist he also agreed to provide information to a friend that would help him to arrange to have a reporter beaten up. (The conversation was recorded, and subsequently broadcast, although Johnson says he never did supply the information requested, and the planned assault never happened.) Corbyn asked Johnson:
If there was a case of a young white boy with blond hair who later dabbled in class A drugs and conspired with a friend to beat up a journalist, would he deport that boy, or is it one rule for young black boys from the Caribbean and another for white boys from the United States?
(Johnson was born in the United States, and he had joint citizenship until only a few years ago, when he gave it up reportedly so that he was no longer liable for US tax.)
It would be wrong to say that the Corbyn question felled Johnson in one go. He responded by accusing Corbyn of demeaning himself, and going on to defend the deportations. But Johnson did appear embarrassed and discomforted; in PMQs terms, he took a hit.
Are there any wider lessons in this? Voters dislike gratuitous personal attacks on politicians, they appear to have close to zero interest in Johnson’s unconventional love life, and during the election repeated Lib Dem claims that Johnson was a “liar” bounced off without doing any harm. But Corbyn’s jibe today wasn’t gratuitous (he was making a reasonable point about double standards). Generally Corbyn, and other opposition MPs, have found it all-but-impossible to puncture Johnson’s iron-clad bonhomie, but perhaps this is how it can be done.
Otherwise the highlights from PMQs were probably Johnson’s surprise decision to agree with Corbyn’s point about the US extradition treaty being lopsided (at least, it seemed to come as a surprise to Corbyn – Tory libertarians have been going on about this for some years) and Johnson’s attack on the pay rise for peers. (See 12.22pm.)
Surprisingly, though, Johnson faced almost no questions about Brexit – even though only two days ago Michael Gove confirmed that there will be border checks on imports from the EU, contradicting repeated claims to the contrary made by Johnson and Gove when they were running Vote Leave. At just the point when Brexiters need to be held to account, MPs seem to be losing interest.