It wasn’t meant to be like this. This wasn’t the prime ministership that Boris Johnson promised himself, or us. It was going to be dishing Jeremy Corbyn, getting Brexit done, a trade deal by Christmas, then all back to his for endless cake and lashings of ginger beer.
We are more at the end of the beginning than at the beginning of the end
Instead it’s lockdown and death and tests that don’t turn up and bloody MPs who are never bloody happy about any bloody thing. You could almost feel sorry for Johnson, although it’s a temptation that can be resisted. He has become a figure of Shakespearian tragedy, trapped by his own argument that there is no problem so hard it can’t be solved with a bit of gung-ho and a spot of can-do.
The short version of Johnson’s statement to Parliament on Tuesday was “six more months of misery”. We are, it turns out, rather more at the end of the beginning than at the beginning of the end. It was a speech long on warnings and shorn of almost every trace of hope. As he announced that only 15 people would be able to attend weddings, he raised his hands in the air in a gesture of despair.
Labour leader Keir Starmer was supportive of the general approach, while offering “fierce criticisms” of the government’s handling of the situation. But the subtlest, deadliest attack on the prime minister came from Johnson himself. It was as though his speech had been hacked and rewritten by an opponent whose only weapon was epic sarcasm.
“We are once again asking office workers who can work from home to do so,” Johnson said, blithely skipping over questions about who might have given them the impression that they’d lose their jobs if they didn’t get back into town and start buying lattes again.
“We must act to stop the virus from being transmitted in bars and restaurants,” said the leader of a government whose sole successful policy measure this year has been getting people into bars and restaurants.
“These measures will only work if people comply,” he went on. “There is nothing more frustrating for the vast majority, the law-abiding majority that do comply than the sight of a few brazenly defying the rules.” Can you think of any examples, prime minister? Any at all?
“These rules will be enforced by tighter penalties,” Johnson assured us. When Dominic Cummings is caught hosting a rave in the Downing Street garden, he’ll have to do two press conferences.
Johnson was heard in silence. It would be tempting to attribute this to the almost empty chamber, but Starmer’s backbenchers managed to make some noise. If I were Chief Whip Mark Spencer, sat next to Johnson on the front bench at the start of the statement, I would worry about the silence of the Tory benches.
Some Tories tried to be helpful. “Can I welcome the measures?” began Mark Menzies. Steady on, not even your boss is welcoming them. Andrea Jenkyns attacked Labour for their lack of positivity. But if Johnson were to announce that the only way to stop the virus was to drop an atom bomb on Jenkyns’ constituency, she would attack Labour for their lack of positivity.
Other Conservatives offered coded – and less coded – attacks. Paul Bristow demanded that Parliament should have a vote before any further lockdown. Tim Loughton told the prime minister, correctly, that he was most successful at carrying the public with him when he levelled with them about the difficulties the country faced.
But Johnson isn’t an instinctive leveller. Questioned by Labour over problems with track-and-trace, he became more and more peevish, complaining that “continual attacks” were “undermining and unnecessary.”
Labour’s Ben Bradshaw asked whether Germany and Italy were managing to control the virus better because their testing systems worked better. Goaded by a humiliating comparison to nations he doubtless still thinks of as defeated Axis powers, Johnson explained that the “important difference between our country and other countries around the world is that our country is a freedom-loving country. It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.”
Of all the bold claims that the prime minister has made, the suggestion that the British are just naturally more anarchic and ungovernable than the regimented, order-loving Italians is surely the boldest. If nothing else, it should lay to rest the idea that he has made any recent trips to Perugia. On the basis of that argument, I’d suggest that he’s never visited Italy at all.
Testing and tracing, the prime minister explained, “has very little or nothing to do with the spread and transmission of the disease.” Where could anyone have got a different idea, or picked up the impression that the solution to our problems was more tests? It’s just one of those mysteries, like where people got the idea that it’s OK to break lockdown rules, or that they could go back to the office without spreading disease. We’ll simply never know.
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