The man who wasn’t there wasn’t there

Boris virtually

There’s always a moment of fear after you press the reset button. Will the lights come on again? 

So it was with BORiS 2.0, who got his first outing at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. It’s not really 2.0, of course: there have been more iterations of Boris Johnson’s public persona than versions of Windows. There was the anti-Brussels journalist, then the TV presenter who wanted Turkey in the European Union, then the London mayor who wanted an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and then the campaigner who wanted Britain out of the EU because of all the Turks and migrants. 

That last version of the operating system was the most successful, dominating the political marketplace. But as with so many Silicon Valley start-ups, the original developer, Dominic Cummings, became convinced of his own infallibility and upset everyone with increasing eccentric behaviour, and has now been replaced. 

After some frantic all-night coding sessions, the new team pressed the reset button, and the nation held its breath. 

As the power started to come back on, the first thing we noted about BORiS 2.0 is that he now operates completely in the Cloud. A physically present prime minister is very much not where the developers see the future. 

The reason they gave is that Johnson has been exposed to Covid and has to isolate. But the decision to do so is still an interesting shift. It’s easy to imagine Dominic Cummings urging the prime minister to go to the House of Commons and cough over everyone, to check his lungs work. 

The boot sequence is familiar: will the prime minister list his engagements for the day? “This morning, I had virtual meetings with ministerial colleagues and others,” Johnson said, looking absolutely delighted not to be with us. “In addition to my virtual duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.”

The new developers have yet to fix his determination to answer the question he wishes he’d been asked, rather than the one he was

Where was he? It was hard to tell. The BBC had, correctly but perhaps impoliticly, earlier described him as “holed up in Downing Street.” Behind him was the stylised grey crest that Number 10 introduced in its last upgrade. Johnson’s spokesman later insisted that the prime minister had been “in his office area”. 

But it was quite hard to tell anything. The trouble with cloud-based technology is that you really do need a reliable internet connection. The prime minister’s appearance was blurred, his voice echoey, like a great uncle in Cornwall finally persuaded to join the family Zoom quiz. Our government’s struggle to get a decent internet connection is an ongoing mystery. Maybe Cummings was the only person who knew where to position the router. Or perhaps Dido Harding persuaded them to try TalkTalk broadband. 

Whatever the reason, as software upgrades go, this was feeling more Windows Vista than iOS 14. 

The new developers have also yet to fix the prime minister’s determination to answer the question he wishes he’d been asked, rather than the one he was. Labour’s Anna McMorrin wanted to know about reports the aid budget may be cut. In reply BORiS 2.0 congratulated himself on his new “green agenda” software. Keir Starmer asked whether it wouldn’t help to get people to isolate if they were entitled to better sick pay while they did so. Johnson thanked him for praising the test-and-Trace system, which he hadn’t. Natural-language processing has long been a weakness with the BORiS system.

Where BORiS 2.0 really ran into trouble, though, was his Scottish module. This has never worked well. Cummings, maverick genius that he was, is said not to have really seen the point of having a Scottish subroutine at all. The new team insist they’re committed to making the system work north of the Tweed, but the news has been full of reports that it went haywire during a private demo on Monday evening. 

Almost as soon as it was turned on, there were signs that something was wrong. The system kept asking Starmer to say that he opposed Scottish independence, with an air that suggested this was a clever question. Given that most of Starmer’s routes to becoming prime minister involve Scotland still being in the UK, the answer is obvious. 

Then Lindsay Hoyle had to correct BORiS 2.0 over his habit of referring to the SNP as “the Scottish Nationalist Party.” Gordon Brown used to do this too, but at least in those days we knew it was an insult. It’s possible Johnson thinks “nationalist” is a compliment. 

When the SNP’s leader, Ian Blackford, rose to ask if Scotland should not rise and be a nation again, it was too much for BORiS 2.0. This would mean handing power back to Brussels, he said, his circuits overloaded. Surrender! Regulations! Fisheries! 

On and on he went, seeming to be winding down but then suddenly starting up again. And just as we wondered if he had got stuck in a loop, Hoyle pulled the plug. Mid-sentence, BORiS 2.0 was silenced. 

Back to the drawing board, then, for the new team, but they shouldn’t feel too disheartened. A prime ministerial mute function is a great innovation, and I hope they keep it.

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