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For Boris Johnson, Parliament Is Becoming a House of Horrors

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LONDON — For Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, debating in Parliament used to be a raucous affair, as backbenchers from his Conservative Party hollered and whooped, booing his rivals and cheering him on like a classmate in a schoolyard brawl. These days, to his evident chagrin, it is more like a legal deposition.

Facing off in an empty, quiet chamber against the lawyer-turned-opposition leader, Keir Starmer, Mr. Johnson has had to endure a forensic weekly grilling on his handling of the coronavirus. Mr. Starmer, 57, has deployed all his courtroom skills against his freewheeling adversary, starting with a prosecutor’s technique of trapping the witness with a question to which you already know the answer.

“Can the prime minister tell us: How on earth did it come to this?” Mr. Starmer asked two weeks ago, after noting that Britain’s death toll was the highest in Europe and the second highest in the world, after the United States.

Mr. Johnson replied that such direct country-to-country comparisons were not valid, and that the true human cost of the pandemic could only be judged after the fact, when one could comb through the statistics.

Leaping out of his seat, Mr. Starmer waved a chart in which the government made exactly those comparisons and noted it had done so for weeks in its press briefings on the virus, when Britain’s death toll looked comparatively better. Mr. Johnson’s argument, he concluded, “just doesn’t really hold water.”

Mr. Johnson returned to work from his bout with the virus to find his government still struggling to respond to the pandemic and a rejuvenated opposition.

The social distancing of Parliament means that most of the 650 members take part remotely, turning a gladiatorial arena, in which Mr. Johnson was once a big cat, into Mr. Starmer’s courtroom.

“There’s no doubt that the current setup plays to his advantage,” said Parvais Jabbar, a lawyer who has worked with Mr. Starmer on human rights cases. “Keir is not a shouter or a screamer. He’s asking questions in an inquisitorial way, but he also examines the responses he receives.”

With an 80-seat majority, Mr. Johnson remains the dominant figure on the British political landscape — a reality that was driven home when he fell ill and analysts had trouble even imagining who might succeed him. Mr. Starmer can hold the government to account for its failures, but he cannot realistically force any significant changes to its policies.

Still, the combination of a pandemic that defies easy solutions and a sure-footed new opponent has put Mr. Johnson on the defensive. This seems particularly true on Wednesdays during the ritual known as Prime Minister’s Questions, or PMQ’s, when the head of the government opens with a very brief statement and then faces jabs from the opposition leader, who in this case is Mr. Starmer.

Mr. Johnson is not the first prime minister to chafe under this scrutiny. Harold Macmillan admitted to feeling physically sick in advance. Tony Blair superstitiously wore the same pair of shoes each time he entered the chamber — or as he put it “the place of execution” — for PMQ’s. “I hated it,” he said.

Often, the lucky brogues weren’t lucky enough.

“Your answers get longer and more convoluted; your tone becomes more shrill; your face gets redder as the paucity of your argument becomes plainer,” Mr. Blair later recalled. “You glance sideways, imploring your own benches to give some sign of support and see the look of embarrassment on their faces.”

Preparing for these sessions is time-consuming. Each week, the leaders brainstorm with their advisers, trying to guess what subjects will come up, honing their answers and fortifying themselves with lines of attack.

Unlike Mr. Starmer, Mr. Johnson is not known for his meticulous homework. As foreign secretary, he treated parliamentary questions more lightly than did some of his colleagues, according to Alistair Burt, a former Conservative lawmaker who served as a junior minister at the Foreign Office at the time.

“He has the confidence,” Mr. Burt said, “Boris has never been fazed by the fact he had to answer questions.”

Mr. Starmer, however, poses an unusual challenge. He is “a forensic lawyer, brought up in a courtroom where there is virtual silence when a point is made,” Mr. Burt said. He also reads the fine print.

In their second encounter, last week, Mr. Starmer pressed Mr. Johnson about why, until March 12, the government advised that it was “very unlikely” people in nursing homes would be affected by the virus. New statistics showed that nursing home deaths account for 40 percent of coronavirus fatalities.

Mr. Johnson denied the government ever put out that advice, prompting the Labour Party to publish a link to the document, which the government withdrew on March 13. Mr. Starmer demanded that Mr. Johnson correct the record; he refused, weakly accusing Mr. Starmer of citing official statements “selectively and misleadingly.”

Mr. Johnson’s travails have coincided with a push by his Conservative Party to bring all lawmakers back in person after the next recess. They insist it is a simple matter of fairness: the government cannot ask other people to go back to their jobs while exempting members of Parliament, said Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, whose self-consciously archaic mannerisms earned him the nickname, “the honorable member for the 18th century.”

But the Conservatives also believe a more crowded House of Commons would function better than the current one, in which a handful of lawmakers attend in person while the rest join virtually from their homes.

“It’s much easier to manage, control and communicate with members of Parliament if they are on site, rather than having them dispersed and communicating with each other via WhatsApp,” said Ruth Fox, director of the Hansard Society, a research organization focused on Parliament.

Given that several members of Parliament contracted the virus earlier this year, many are reluctant to return. The speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, warned he would suspend sittings if too many people piled into the chamber.

For now, no more than 50 lawmakers can attend at any time, and a fair proportion of those are drawn from the opposition. That suggests Mr. Johnson has little hope of surrounding himself with cheering supporters any time soon.

Even if the members were to pack the chamber’s green-leather benches, the pandemic would create a very different mood. Anguished debates about why so many people died in nursing homes do not lend themselves to cheers or catcalls. Mr. Johnson’s ability to parry questions from Mr. Starmer, several analysts said, will ultimately matter less than his government’s handling of the virus.

Still, they said, the image of a prime minister, isolated and wilting under the scrutiny of a confident Labour leader could chip away at the breezy triumphalism Mr. Johnson has shown since his landslide election victory.

“It’s easy to see the House of Commons as a sort of vaudeville theater and ask, ‘Why does this matter?’” said Tony Travers, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics. “It does matter, not only because millions of people watch it. Having a good opposition leader, doing harm to the prime minister, does have consequences on morale, particularly during bad times.”

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