Handle this situation maturely
Or chaos with Ed Miliband
It was one of those evenings when all the surprises came at once, if by “surprises” you mean “long inevitable decisions”.
In no particular order, a defence minister was sacked, the prime minister’s press secretary was removed, Boris Johnson said we were facing a third, or possibly fourth, wave of Covid, and so far as the sketch understands it, football imploded.
There is a long tradition of governments rushing out bad news under cover of bigger news. Johnson’s administration has elevated it, producing so much bad news that it was less an issue of one piece covering the others as all of the pieces of awfulness fitting together to cover the day, a sort of patchwork quilt of horror.
Nevertheless, the sketch has been assured that the departure of the Chief Ball Man of Chelsea United over the plans for European SuperBowl (is this right?) is a bigger deal even than the departure of Johnny Mercer, and we’ll take everyone’s word for it.
As for the sideways move of Allegra Stratton, your sketchwriter should declare an interest: I shared an office with her in her Guardian days, I attended her wedding, I am very fond of her, and wish her only happiness and success. Perhaps she will find these things by going to work with Alok Sharma. It is a more plausible route than fronting daily press conferences as a spokeswoman for Boris Johnson.
The evening had started with a press conference fronted by the prime minister himself, and it was one that, as it happened, illustrated why the plan for daily events hosted by Stratton were such a bad idea.
At some stage, we need to go back and find the moment when the prime minister transformed from the national ray of sunshine, determined to cheer everyone up — often, it must be admitted, by lying to them — into the cloud on the horizon, making sure no one is having excessive fun.
Perhaps you had been enjoying the improving weather, the reopening of beer gardens, the chance to shop or sit outside with a friend. Maybe you had been telling yourself that this was a pit stop on a journey back to normality, when you might once again crowd into a pub, or even leave the house without checking you’ve got your facemask.
The prime minister was here to tell you to moderate your optimism. “We cannot delude ourselves that Covid has gone away,” he said. “There will be another wave of Covid at some stage this year. We must, as far as possible, learn to live with this disease, as we live with other diseases.”
Does that mean vaccine passports, he was asked. He began by, once again, trying to avoid using that phrase, referring instead to “‘Covid status certification,’ as we call it”. This is the most doomed rebrand since one of David Cameron’s aides tried to insist on answering questions about the bedroom tax by referring to the “spare room subsidy”. Anyway, he’s now not even denying that they’re under consideration. It was, he said, something that “any responsible government” would look at. And his government will, too.
“We’ll be setting it out in due course,” Johnson bumbled. “People certainly don’t need to think about it before May 17th.” The sketch is not completely convinced that this line will work with Tory MPs, but we look forward to seeing it deployed in the Commons.
No one wants to ask about shagging stories when a thousand deaths have just been announced.
But at least these questions were about Covid. The Dominic Cummings/Lee Cain axis that ran Number 10 for what we must now think of as Phase One of the Johnson Prime Ministerial Universe was attracted to the idea of replacing Lobby briefings with daily press conferences because they were impressed at how well the pressers went down during the early stages of the virus crisis.
But they had failed to grasp that a global crisis lends a prime minister heft, which weighs even on those asking the questions. No one wants to ask about shagging stories when a thousand deaths have just been announced. As a veteran of Lobby briefings, the sketch can report that reporters don’t feel such restraint towards the prime minister’s spokesman.
And as the crisis eases – they nearly forgot to do the slides at the start of Tuesday’s, so low are the numbers – the respectful air is wearing off towards Johnson, too. He was asked about his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, the pole-dancing tech entrepreneur who used to brighten Johnson’s evenings, and is now cheering the rest of us up by telling all, at great length. Such is the backlog of Johnson scandals that reporters are still asking about ones from when he was London Mayor, five years ago. We’re hoping to get to 2020’s scandals in about 18 months.
Johnson could brush the question off, though he did seem to confirm the affair as he did so, and end the presser. Stratton, in his place, with reporters physically present, would have faced shouted follow-ups and then laughter as she insisted on the prime minister’s integrity.
There is, however, for fans of the master strategists Cummings and Cain, something pleasing about the news. Having conceived of the press conferences as a way to seize control of the agenda from journalists, they appointed Stratton, who forced them out, before the pressers themselves were cancelled.
One can only wish the pair more luck in their next venture, which the sketch understands to be something to do with putting together a new league for Europe’s top football clubs.
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