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The road back from Durham

Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie

Artillery Row Sketch

People sometimes suggest that Boris Johnson just says whatever he needs to say to get out of the room. Indeed this sketch may, on occasion, have compared his manner to a man trying to escape the post-coital embrace of a woman whose name he has forgotten.

But there are moments when our national leader speaks no more than the unvarnished truth, and Wednesday’s prime minister’s questions was one of those.

It came in response to Keir Starmer. The Labour leader was speaking remotely, having been locked down again. It is possible that he is the only person that Dido Harding’s £23 billion operation has successfully locked down. Maybe she has his details because the Starmer household are TalkTalk customers. Or perhaps Downing Street keep identifying him as a contact for a prank.

The virtual set-up didn’t flatter Starmer, making it harder for him to react to Johnson, and somehow giving him the air of an unenthusiastic insurance salesman on daytime television. We had passed a “tragic milestone” the previous day, he said, with 100,000 people now dead from Coronavirus. Why did the prime minister think the UK had the highest death toll in Europe? He would get a free Parker pen just for replying.

Johnson replied that he took “full responsibility for all the actions we have taken”, though the criticism is more of the actions he didn’t take, or took too late. As for what might have been done differently, “yes, there will indeed be a time when we must learn the lessons of what has happened, reflect on them and prepare,” the prime minister said. “I do not think that moment is now.”

And that, we must accept, was no more or less than the truth. The government, and the Conservative Party, are entirely resolved not to learn anything from anything that has happened so far, not from the failure to lock down quickly enough in March, or October, or December, nor from the folly of raising false hopes of earlier release.

Students of politics know that a crisis like this goes through three stages. We’re currently at the point where it’s too early to learn any lessons. To an outsider, the midst of a pandemic might seem to be the moment at which lessons about handling a pandemic would be most useful. But that isn’t the kind of thinking that will get you selected as a Conservative candidate. To be honest, few kinds of thinking will.

Next, once the crisis is over, will come the public inquiry. At that point, ministers will sadly be unable to answer questions about what might have gone wrong during the pandemic, because they won’t want to pre-empt the inquiry. When it has finished taking evidence, they will remind us that the only fair thing will be to wait for the inquiry’s conclusions.

Had you somehow got the impression that restrictions might be eased from 15 February? Foolish you!

Finally, months later, the inquiry will make its report, and the prime minister will deliver them to the House of Commons. There will be roughly 35 minutes during which it is appropriate to discuss what might have gone wrong during the pandemic, and those will be the 35 minutes during which the prime minister is speaking. He will close by urging us to put these dreadful days behind us and to pull together as a nation. After that, ministers will refuse to discuss the matter any further, because it would be distasteful, and, in any case, as in stage 4 of the “standard Foreign Office response“, it’s too late now.

Johnson had to go through it all twice more on Wednesday before he could put his feet up. First, there was a statement to the House of Commons on the lockdown plan. Had you somehow got the impression that it might be eased on 15 February? Foolish you! He had always meant 8 March, although when we approach 8 March and check the small print, we may find that he never meant 8 March.

The prime minister grew increasingly impatient as the day wore on. His words at the opening of his statement, noting the many who had died, were adequate to the occasion more or less, but he read them off in the manner of a bored schoolboy who couldn’t believe he was being forced to do this.

By the time he had to go through it a third time in his evening press conference, he was becoming petulant. In an effort to help him towards a teachable moment, the Financial Times listed a series of candidates for “possible mistake”, including, of course, refusing to sack Dominic Cummings after his lockdown-busting trip to Durham.

“All I would say, humbly and respectfully to people who make criticisms,” Johnson replied, somehow managing to suppress any outward sign of the humility and respect that he apparently so deeply feels, “in situations like this where you face such brutal and difficult dilemmas there are no easy answers and very often there are no good answers at all.”

There it was, once again, the reminder that amid all the suffering of this pandemic, the greatest victim is the prime minister. A man of sorrows, broken for us by impossible options.

Has Johson caught Responsibility-21? If he has, he’s an asymptomatic case, and he doesn’t seem to have transmitted it anyone else in the cabinet. This is the great thing about having so few other Etonians in there – it’s very easy to maintain social distance.

Why dwell on the past, when there are going to be schools and beer and Scotch eggs in the future?

The other true thing that he said on Wednesday was he was responsible for his government. But it was just the same in all his previous scrapes, and the prime minister knows you’ve always moved on. On everything, each time. Sure, there’s 100,000 fewer of you to move on this time, but maybe that makes the job easier. Why dwell on the past, when there are going to be schools and beer and Scotch eggs in the future? And bridges and airport islands and nights where it’s just the two of you, the phone turned off and as much poetry as a body can handle. “Oh that Dominic,” he can already imagine himself saying to the Royal Commission. It’ll all be alright. This too will be passed over. Good old Boris. Lucky old Boris. Not long to go now.

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