It’s over! We won! Covid’s gone! Boris Johnson didn’t actually walk into the House of Commons in a flight suit and deliver his speech in front of a huge banner reading “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED”, but that was very much the vibe.
Hostages were now being handed to fortune by the bus-load
Cynics might note that the prime minister has announced the End Of Covid For Ever two or three times before in the last couple of years. Who can forget the July 2020 “Independence Day”, when we celebrated leaving lockdown for the last time? Or, as it turned out, for the first time. But that’s not the point. This time, as Johnson may have whispered to more than a few women over the decades, he really meant it. Barely two months after he summoned an emergency Cabinet to discuss the case for a Christmas lockdown, he was here to say he’d Got Covid Done.
Although it turns out that, as ever, terms and conditions apply. The prime minister explained to us that he had been paying attention at least part of the time when the scientists were talking to him. “They are certain there will be new variants, and it is very possible they will be worse than Omicron,” he said.
And how will we fight those variants? “Exercise personal responsibility,” Johnson explained, without even a flicker of shame.
“We don’t need laws to compel people to be considerate to others,” he went on, although science has yet to discover a force in the universe strong enough to compel decent behaviour from Boris Johnson.
There were lots of details about how and when various restrictions will be lifted, but the key point seemed to be that we should all stock up on lateral flow tests, which are about to become more valuable than cigarettes in prison. This is a victory for Tory backbenchers, who feel that testing for Covid only encourages the virus. Indeed the whole statement felt like it was aimed firmly at shoring up the prime minister’s support on his own side.
Not many politicians have the chutzpah to attack their opponents for supporting them
There was certainly a party atmosphere behind him, but for some it wasn’t enough. The new battle among Conservatives is to own history. Sir Graham Brady and Sir Edward Leigh spoke for those who feel that the main mistake the government has made in the last two years is to acknowledge Covid’s existence at all, and that a better approach would have been to ignore it until it went away. Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark took the side of more testing and faster action against future pandemics, but those aren’t lessons the Tories are keen to learn.
Matt Hancock, Captain Personal Responsibility himself, announced that “we are the first major country in the world to be past the pandemic.” Hostages were now being handed to fortune by the bus-load.
Keir Starmer, responding for Labour, was stuck in the role Johnson had set for him of Careful Man Asking If This Is All Such A Good Idea. That’s not the type of attitude that gets you invited to join the Bullingdon Club, and the prime minister was dismissive of boring old questions about ventilation in schools and testing supplies.
He accused Starmer of “making the wrong call on every single one of the big decisions,” which was odd given that, on the vast majority of Covid issues, Labour has voted with the government. Not many politicians have the chutzpah to attack their opponents for supporting them, but Johnson has it to spare. A year from now he’ll be telling us that lockdown was all Starmer’s idea.
So is Big Dog now saved? Even David Davis, who told Johnson only weeks back to “in the name of God, go”, was complimentary about the prime minister. It may come down to the Metropolitan Police. Earlier in the day, Business Minister Paul Scully had declined to say whether breaking the law was the sort of thing prime ministers should resign for. “I need to see the context,” he told Sky News. “I absolutely need to see the context.”
There’s something touching about the way Tory MPs cling to the idea that there might be some mitigating explanation for the Downing Street lockdown parties. As if it’s finally going to be revealed that Dennis Hopper had put a bomb under Downing Street that was armed the moment 50 people started drinking, and would go off if the number of people drinking dropped below 50.
The context of course was the government imposing arguably the widest restrictions on personal liberty in British history. The context was Hancock and Johnson, appearing on television night after night, telling people they couldn’t visit friends or lovers, couldn’t spend more than an hour a day outside. There isn’t going to be a moment where Johnson reveals he had a terrific excuse for ignoring his own rules.
Quite the opposite. The prime minister’s view was revealed when Tory Lee Anderson told him he had “got all the big decisions right in the pandemic.”
Johnson rose. Would he acknowledge that some things could perhaps have been handled better? That, at the very, very least, some people should have been gently urged to step away from the corkscrew? Would he hell. “My honourable friend,” the prime minister replied, “has put it brilliantly and succinctly, and I have nothing to add.”
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