Imagine that you were being held prime minister against your will, and that you needed to signal for help, but without your captors noticing. What would you do?
Perhaps you’d make a speech that sounded like a boilerplate political outing on the importance of education, but that actually contained a series of lines that no sensible politician in your situation would utter.
Which brings us to Exeter, where Boris Johnson was making a speech about the importance of education. At first, it was Johnson-by-numbers, noting that the college he was visiting offered courses “from particle physics to cake decorating”. But then there was an interestingly vivid reference to “the hand-to-mouth scrabblings of the pandemic,” which is probably not the government’s preferred description of the past six months. Was he trying to tell us something?
There were some promises of cash to improve buildings, and some Tory-pleasing lines about how some degree subjects are a waste of money that don’t qualify people for real jobs. People who say these things are never clear exactly which courses they mean, and given that Johnson is now running the country, we must assume he was referring to something less practical than a Classics degree.
He went on. “Many working adults are stuck in jobs without much future when they are hungry for new opportunities.” Was that an unfortunate phrasing from a prime minister whose former supporters are now expressing doubts about him – or was it a signal of some sort?
The speech continued, with promises to make it easier for people to borrow to attend further education colleges. A cynic might note that it will be easier to believe government ministers are taking FE colleges seriously when the children of government ministers attend them, but the words were at least going in the right direction.
Johnson was halfway through now. “You can learn IT whatever your age,” he told his audience. Surely his speechwriters were aware that this week was the anniversary of the stories about the prime minister’s “technology lessons” from Jennifer Arcuri? Had… had Johnson himself slipped the line in deliberately? What was he trying to tell us?
He was winding up. “Now is the time to end the pointless, snooty, and frankly vacuous distinction between the practical and the academic,” he said. The cries for help were becoming blatant. If you can’t rely on a Conservative prime minister to stand up for pointless, snooty, vacuous distinctions, what can you rely on them for? This is the party of David Cameron and Sasha Swire, after all.
As he took questions, the signs were ever clearer that Johnson was under some sort of control. He kept looking off-camera to his left. Who was there? Did they have the answers? At times, as he talked haltingly about details, he even gestured in their direction, perhaps pleading with the camera to turn and show his captors.
He couldn’t admit it, of course. “I’m fitter than a butcher’s dog,” he insisted. But then, asked a straightforward question about how the lockdown rules his own government had introduced worked, he saw his chance.
“On the rule of six, outside the areas such as the North East where extra measures have been brought in, it is six inside and six outside,” Johnson began, correctly. Then he went for it. “In the North East and other areas where extra, tighter measures have been brought in,” he said, “it is six in a home or hospitality but not six outside. That is the situation.”
It was wrong, it was clearly wrong. There were only two possible explanations: either the prime minister didn’t know or understand his own government’s central policy, on a day when the question was being asked of his colleagues and his office – or he was being held captive, and trying to get a message out the only way he could.
Would he take more questions? He looked left again, and got his answer. His lips told the students he’d enjoyed spending time with them, but did his eyes beg them to call the police?
A little over an hour later, it was clear that his escape bid had failed. “Apologies, I misspoke today,” a stilted message on his Twitter feed began. There was no “cripes!”, no cod Latin, just a straight correction. We could tell Johnson hadn’t typed it. Had his signals been spotted, leading to a punishment beating? We may never know.
But please, if you’re reading this, send help.
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