“You, boy! What day is it?”
“It’s Boris cancelling Christmas Day, sir!”
The big clue that Boris Johnson was going to have to cancel Christmas was of course on Wednesday, when he accused Keir Starmer of wanting to cancel Christmas and told the rest of us that it was too late to do it anyway. That was when the smart money nipped down to the butcher and enquired about the possibility of changing its order for next week.
Because we have rather been here before, haven’t we? The prime minister’s emergency Saturday evening press conference was very much a greatest hits medley, which saw him arriving late, announcing that he was going to implement a plan that he had completely rejected, even mocked, a few days earlier, and then shrugging away any responsibility and insisting all this had been forced on him.
If only there had been some clue that Boris Johnson was someone temperamentally inclined to tell people what they want to hear
In this version of A Christmas Carol, the general public get to play the role of Scrooge, going to bed with one understanding and waking up to find that everything has changed. Except that in the 2020 reboot you had ordered a turkey and were expecting a party, and instead you find out that you’re spending the day alone.
Starmer is obviously the Ghost of Christmas Future, or at least the Ghost of Christmas One Step Ahead Of The Prime Minister. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance are the Ghost of Christmas Present, terrifying us with incomprehensible slides. And Johnson himself is the Ghost of Christmas Past, with the twist that he’s the one haunted by happier times now gone for ever.
If only there had been some clue that Boris Johnson was someone temperamentally inclined to tell people what they want to hear until reality batters down the door and holds a gun to his head. Just some tiny behaviour in his past that might have pointed to this. One little hint that he was the kind of person for whom words are just things you say to get yourself through the next five minutes. Still, hindsight, eh?
Johnson’s defence was that this had all happened very late in the day. “When the facts change, you have to change your approach,” he told us, several times. It is weird how the facts seem to change in Johnson’s Downing Street five days after they change everywhere else. Maybe they have to go through a quarantine period before they can get past the door.
Perhaps the delay in making decisions is again meant to look like he’s fighting for our right to party
The data, Johnson said vaguely, had “been in our possession for a day or so”. He also told us that there had been worries in November about why infections weren’t falling in Kent, and of course Matt Hancock told Parliament about this new strain of Covid on Monday, all of which suggest that it’s not so much a question of the facts changing recently as the prime minister’s fingers having to be prised off the old facts before he can absorb new ones.
Chris Whitty, standing next to Johnson, rather added to that impression when he said that after the latest data arrived, “we advised: ‘You really do have to act.’” That phrase suggested that we will learn in due course that the advice had been offered in milder forms in previous days.
During last year’s Brexit fight with Parliament, Johnson’s team made great play of the reluctance with which he delayed Britain’s departure from the European Union, first insisting he would break the law, and then briefing out, more or less, that he might have obeyed it, but he was flicking v-signs at Brussels the whole time. The idea was to make sure the public felt his reluctance.
We could feel his reluctance this time too. There were the deep sighs, and much “alas” and “I’m afraid” and “heavy heart”. Perhaps the delay in making decisions is again meant to look like he’s fighting for our right to party, but its effect is to sabotage people’s plans much more effectively. Is there anyone who wouldn’t rather have had nine days’ warning of what was coming than six?
“There have been so many terrible moments in this epidemic, this is another one,” Whitty said at one point, in the least disputable moment of the press conference.
So here it is, cancelled Christmas, everybody’s gone online. Look to the future now, it’s got to be better than this.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe