“I was bewildered, to be honest.” Boris Johnson was giving evidence to the Covid Inquiry about his feelings when he realised that the virus would not be defeated by hearty optimism and a punchy front page from the Telegraph. For a moment, at least, he was telling the complete truth.
It had been a long day. We’d been promised the former prime minister would open with an apology. In the event, it was rather vague, less a solemn admission of mistakes and more the sort of vague expression of regret you might mutter to a not-close colleague on learning that their budgie had died.
It was pleasingly on-brand that, looking back at lockdown, Johnson’s main regret was a shortage of women
It took him six minutes to hit the first memory blank. This was over whether he’d told the Cabinet Secretary that he wouldn’t be handing his WhatsApps over to the inquiry. “I don’t remember that,” Johnson said. “I’ve handed over all the relevant WhatsApps.”
Would it shock you to learn that this statement wasn’t, in fact, strictly, 100 per cent accurate? Due to an unfortunate technical error that Johnson was unable to explain, all his messages for the first five months of the pandemic had been deleted. “It’s something to do with the app going down and then coming up again,” he explained, with the vague ease of a man practised at explaining away mysterious late-night phone calls, lipstick on collars, and surprise paternity suits.
And Johnson is indeed used to talking his way out of difficult corners. The difference on Wednesday was that the man asking the questions had all the answers. More than once the former prime minister asserted that he had never heard such a thing, only for inquiry counsel Hugo Keith to point out to him exactly when he had.
Nor could he simply attempt to talk the hearing out, as though he were speaking to a Radio 4 interviewer with one eye on a clock that was running down towards the next bulletin. Keith had plenty of time, and so waffle though Johnson certainly did, attempting to change the subject to vaccines and abstract issues of hindsight, there were still hours on the clock. After just 45 minutes, Johnson was starting to look knackered.
It was all turning out to be such a drag, almost as much of a drag as being bloody prime minister had been — “I was just sitting in meeting after meeting,” he complained later — with people asking you why you hadn’t done this or had done that. Had he read minutes of the meetings of scientists discussing how to handle the killer virus heading for our shores? “Once or twice. SAGE certainly produced a lot of documentation.” Should he have probed more? “It might have been valuable,” Johnson pondered, sounding bored at the very thought.
Later he would say that Downing Street had been full of people who were highly self-critical, but if he has given any thought in the last three years to how he might have handled the early days of 2020 differently, there was no evidence of it here. About the only area in which he conceded he wished he’d done things differently was that “the gender balance of my team should have been better”. It was pleasingly on-brand that, looking back at lockdown, Johnson’s main regret was a shortage of women.
Just for a moment, the old Boris was back, shameless as ever.
Keith put it to him that the evidence from the time showed “an appalling picture of incompetence and disarray”. Johnson looked quizzical. Had it really been that bad? He could, he said, think of a lot of governments containing “challenging characters”. Why, he went on, if you’d had WhatsApps from senior civil servants in the Thatcher government, you’d probably find they were “pretty fruity”. Unfortunately Robert Armstrong died in the early days of the pandemic, so we can’t ask him whether he ever referred to Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson as “useless fuckpigs”.
On this Johnson seemed sincere. But in fairness, there is strong evidence that every single thing he’s run has been utterly chaotic. Like a monarch who believes the world smells of fresh paint, Johnson may assume that all organisations are full of staff threatening to kill each other and complaining that the boss can’t make up his mind.
So what had gone wrong in those early days, when the prime minister had definitely been fully focussed on the job and not off in a country house trying to finish his book on Shakespeare? “I think collectively in Whitehall there was not a sufficient, loud enough klaxon of alarm,” he said sadly. “I don’t blame people,” he added, generously. In the public gallery there were alternative perspectives on offer.
Did Johnson “with hindsight — and I emphasise hindsight” feel he had himself done enough, Keith asked. “I think that I did what I could,” came the complacent reply. We had been promised that he’d spent weeks preparing for all this, but the suspicion began to creep in that, not for the first time, reports of the enormous amount of work Johnson had done had been exaggerated.
As the afternoon wore on, the former prime minister tried to put the best gloss on things. He’d actually approved of the atmosphere in Downing Street, he’d claimed, because he wanted people to feel comfortable challenging ideas. Though of course anybody challenging Cummings tended to find themselves out of a job.
Johnson even started to come out fighting. He complained that his reputation had been traduced by the inquiry. For instance, it had been suggested that when he wrote “This is Gulf War Syndrome stuff” on a memo about Long Covid, this reflected his belief that it was made up. Nothing could have been further from the truth, he said, aggrieved. He had been trying to find a way to explain the condition to the public. When he had scrawled “BOLLOCKS” across the top of the relevant paragraph, that had been an expression of sympathy.
He ran his fingers through his hair and looked across at the inquiry chair, Baroness Hallett. Just for a moment, the old Boris was back, shameless as ever. He couldn’t have been more Boris if he’d suggested to her that she might want to nip next door for a quickie.
But for the most part what we got was a man who in 2020 had been so utterly unequipped for the task before him that even now he didn’t really understand where it had all gone wrong. Who hadn’t, at the time or in the years since, been especially interested in all this bad news stuff and what might be done about it. He was, to be honest, bewildered.
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