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It’ll be Gover by Christmas

Being PM isn’t as easy as Boris looked forward to it being

“We need to behave fearlessly, but with common sense.” Boris Johnson was issuing the nation with its instructions. He said it confidently, but with worry in his voice. The public received the message with rejoicing, but in sackcloth. Everything was now clear, but in doubt.

It was the prime minister’s conference interview with Andrew Marr. Usually these moments come to us from a hotel suite, and are watched from different hotel rooms by journalists in their pants, hoping to soak up the alcohol consumed the previous evening with a full English breakfast from room service: people, if you like, consuming recklessly, but with regret.

This time Johnson and Marr were in the BBC’s Covid-secure newsroom, and the rest of us were on our sofas. The Tories are having a sort of pretend-conference online. We’re still getting to grips with how it works.

The Tory conference has always, in reality, been three parallel conferences. There was the one for members, who would queue up to hear Jacob Rees-Mogg say silly things in Latin: foolishness, but with erudition. There was the one for the press, where coffee in the morning fought booze in the evening for control of the brain: uppers, but with downers. And there was the one for business, which was kept well out of sight of the other two conferences, and involved large sums of money being handed over in the hope of getting access to ministers. Corruption, but with compliance.

Sponsors are being charged tens of thousands this year to put up virtual stands, even though there is no one to look at them. We haven’t seen the full fee structure, but I’m hoping that for an extra five grand, a public affairs manager can let four drunken colleagues join a Zoom call on Tuesday night where he will fail to talk his way into the Spectator’s virtual party. Bravado, but with humiliation.

In the Marr interview, Johnson continued to endure the exquisite torture that the Furies have designed for him: to be a good news prime minister who has only bad news to deliver. His usual “buoyancy and elan” would, he explained mournfully, be “totally inappropriate.” Still, “do I think things can be significantly different by Christmas? Yes I do,” he said, before adding, more plausibly, that “this could be a very tough winter for all of us.” Optimism, but with pessimism.

Was he unhappy with the contact-tracing operation? “Of course I’m frustrated with it. Am I going to blame NHS test-and-trace… no of course I’m not.” Pointing the finger, but without naming names.

This depends on accepting that the statements “Boris is in full health” and “Boris is clearly bluffing his way through this” are in some way incompatible.

When Marr suggested the prime minister had failed to deliver a promise on test-and-trace, the response was instructive. “People have criticised me for saying that I wanted this to be a fantastic system,” Johnson said. This is not the criticism, of course, and the answer suggests that he sees the pledges he makes in the house of commons less as things he’ll ensure will happen and more as vague aspirations. Solemn assurances, but not meant seriously.

There is increasing unhappiness in the Tory party as it becomes clear that the virus war won’t all be over by Christmas. MPs fear the lockdown is causing unnecessary damage to the economy, and long for the prime minister to make a hard choice to, in effect, risk a little more infection in order to save some jobs. This group would probably fairly happily take “Behave fearlessly, but with common sense” as a slogan. Their complaint is that, in many parts of the country, the government isn’t giving people the choice. Instead the message is “Behave fearlessly, but without leaving your house.”

These MPs demand to know what has happened to the Boris Johnson they chose as leader, the man who dashed off Telegraph columns decrying politicians who spent all their time worrying. Johnson tried to assure them that he was still the same man – “a freedom-loving Tory” – but the longer part of his answer was that he was now in a different job: “As prime minister I couldn’t take a course that could expose us to tens of thousands more deaths in very short order.” Power, but with responsibility.

Finally, Johnson took another opportunity to reassure us all that he is in good health. Broadly, he looked it, too. An idea circulates in Tory circles that his current lack of grip is the result of a lingering illness after his hospital stay. This depends on accepting that the statements “Boris is in full health” and “Boris is clearly bluffing his way through this” are in some way incompatible.

There is another possibility, that the prime minister is quite well, and just finds being prime minister quite hard. Doing an intense job, but skipping the reading. Trying to have his cake, but also trying to eat it. His usual self, and not quite up to it.

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