So it’s escape, then. But which version is it? Boris Johnson perhaps sees himself as Richard Attenborough’s Roger “Big X” Bartlett in The Great Escape, going carefully, putting the goons to sleep while he digs thirty feet down before going horizontal, before taking half the camp out in one night and hoping they don’t all die in the final reel.
Tory MPs fear he’s Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express, doing a deal with the enemy and thwarting their bid for freedom. Or possibly Russell Osman in Escape to Victory, arguing that it would be worth putting off escape by 45 minutes so as to give the virus a thrashing. Labour MPs still think he’s Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes.
Perhaps the best we can hope is that he’s William Holden in Stalag 17, the charming but amoral cynic who finally decides to do the right thing, if only for selfish reasons.
“We are now setting out on what I hope and believe is a one-way road to freedom,” the prime minister told Parliament. We have heard this tune a couple of times before, it’s true, but this time there are reasons to think he might be right. There were other attempts to get past the wire: the track and trace system, the Operation Moonshot testing programme. Those might have failed, but there was reason to hope. Open up Harry, we vaccinate around the clock. Well, into the evening, anyway.
It felt almost like a different Johnson. A chastened one, perhaps, one who had burned his fingers by promising people their freedom in the past only to have to tell them that the tunnel hadn’t actually reached the trees and they were going to have to wait for the dark of the next moon. Or, as he put it, “we must always be humble in the face of nature.”
The prime minister has never previously shown signs of feeling obligations to humility in the face of anything at all, so perhaps this is a welcome sign of personal growth.
Johnson, like any good escape officer, thinks documents may be necessary if we’re to make it to freedom
If so, any joy in Heaven at a sinner that repenteth was more than offset by frustration on the Conservative benches. Again and again Tory MPs stood up and demanded, in effect, that they get the old reckless Boris back. Again and again they asked him if he would go faster in easing the lockdown. With increasing signs of irritation, he told his MPs he was going as fast as was safe. He didn’t say, for obvious reasons, that infection levels would already be much lower than they currently are if he had ignored them last year.
On and on the Tories went. Paul Bristow said the dates the government had chosen seemed “arbitrary”. Steve Brine wanted to see the scientific evidence behind the decisions. Please, they seemed to cry, can’t we have the Boris who used to just tell us what we wanted to hear without regard for reality?
Johnson’s uncharacteristic slogan, repeated repeatedly, was “cautiously but irreversibly towards reclaiming our freedoms”. Later on, in the press conference, he conceded that, “I can’t guarantee that it’s going to be irreversible,” but he did at least stick with caution. “I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives,” he explained. Not this year, anyway.
As with any escape, there remains the question of papers. Conservative MPs oppose any move to require people to prove they’ve been vaccinated, but Johnson, like any good escape officer, thinks documents may be necessary if we’re to make it to freedom. The situation is under review.
If Tories oppose vaccine passports, there are other passports they rather like. Richard Fuller made a strong bid for Maddest Debating Point when he reminded Johnson that UK passports request and require “in the name of Her Majesty, ‘all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance’”. This, he seemed to be suggesting, ran counter to the policy of quarantining arrivals. Perhaps he imagined that, now this had been pointed out, Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary Of State will send a gunboat to liberate British citizens interned at Stalag Heathrow.
It was left to Sir Edward Leigh to offer Johnson some support. “Many of the 88 people who have gone before me and criticised the prime minister have been wise after the event,” he said, somewhat generously towards his own colleagues, who largely seem committed to post-event foolishness. Arguing that lessons needed to be learned, he suggested that the past year had shown the value of tougher, earlier lockdowns, rather than weaker ones.
The prime minister looked grateful for the support. He was nearing the end of his time at the dispatch box, and had almost made it through. All that was necessary was to remember not to reply to the virus in English.
And with that, as the Germans say, “Good luck”.
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