At this most desperate hour, Britain desperately needs better than Boris Johnson

The country is in dire need of leadership, but they will find none at all from the prime minister

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Monday 16 March 2020 21:17
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'Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time' says prime minister Boris Johnson in coronavirus update

On Monday afternoon, at a press conference in Downing Street, prime minister Boris Johnson announced some of the most draconian measures in this country’s history.

Well, apparently he did anyway, as that’s what everyone keeps saying, but I’ve watched it back twice now and I’m not sure I can actually find any.

Have restaurants, pubs, theatres and nightclubs been ordered to close, as in France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, New York, and almost everywhere else? No, they haven’t.

Have people been asked not to go to them? Yes, they have, kind of. Not told, just asked.

From Friday, the prime minister said: “Those with the most serious conditions should be shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks.”

What are the most serious conditions? Do these measures apply to anyone over 70? That appears to be the case, but only thanks to the question-and-answer session at the end, and that failed to make it clear also.

What does “shielded from social contact” mean? Apparently they will still be allowed out to “exercise”. Where? Not sure about that either, actually.

Before he said the words “12 weeks”, he noticeably paused. The two devastating syllables struggled to force their way out of his perma-swollen gob.

It cannot be ruled out that some part of his psychology still hopes to socially distance himself from these events, by refusing to confirm exactly what they are.

The prime minister was asked to be clearer. Was he formally shutting down pubs, theatres, restaurants? Ordering them to close?

What followed was some pointless, tedious waffle about the fact that under an act of 1984, the health secretary has the power to ban the handshake. One would think that now, in these moments, his usual retreat to wiffwaffian dribble might not happen, but self-evidently it always does. What we got was the following: “Most people will accept that we are a mature, grown-up and liberal democracy where people understand very clearly the advice that is being given.”

Sadly, I have just checked, and I am a political sketch writer. The word “writer” is in my job title, and thus it is beholden upon me to attempt to string together proper sentences, when the correct course of action at this point would just be a series of bulletpoints on how unprecedentedly inadequate this one sentence, and the man who said it, is.

It’s not even worth mentioning that we are a mature and grown-up liberal democracy in which, on Sunday morning, a single shopper at Costco (Lakeside, Essex) purchased five separate 96-packs of toilet paper. (It probably is worth mentioning that the shops were ransacked on Sunday morning because news of a four-month quarantining of the over-70s was made public not by any kind of government announcement, but in the form of a blog post by Robert Peston.)

It is also very much the case that every single pub, bar, restaurant and theatre in the land is already acutely aware that, in telling people to, you know, do the right thing, but not actually ordering anywhere to close, none are eligible to claim on their insurance.

Still, what did they expect? “Man who said ‘f**k business’ f**ks business” is not exactly “man bites dog”.

And it is also very, very, very much indeed the case that no, the people don’t “very clearly understand the advice that is being given”, because the advice is very, very unclear.

It emerges first on frenzied, panic-buying-inducing blogs that also have the effect of sending millions of pensioners weeping in terror into their iPads.

It is then teased out of reluctant politicians in down-the-line interviews on the news channels on Sunday mornings.

And then the prime minister eventually appears to waffle out historic news in the form of non-instructions that make no sense and serve no great purpose beyond, that’s right, you’ve guessed it, what Boris Johnson imagines to be his own self-interest.

It will be news to no one that Johnson is out of his depth. Over the coming months, the nation will not want to be spoken to as drunken corporate insurers do during after-dinner speeches for £25,000 a time, the only audience to which Johnson provides value for money.

(Very good value for money, as it turns out. £25,540 was what the British Insurance Brokers’ Association paid him to dance for coins at their conference last summer, and now he’s done his bit to make sure their hands will be staying very firmly in their pin-striped pockets while the hospitality sector and its minimum-wage footsoldiers go to the wall at lightning speed.)

No, no. An epidemic cannot be lied its way out of. It can’t be blustered away. There are precious few moments for which Johnson is the right man. But he is the wrong one for this. The occasion is comparatively low for the time being. We are in its foothills. And already it has risen far beyond his reach.

In the days and weeks ahead, the world will be in mourning for its terrible human loss, and this country’s mourner-in-chief will be a man who chose, long ago, to socially distance himself from a still-unknown number of his own children.

For some years now, I have written that he has turned his country into an international joke, and that we are the punchline. I was wrong. At least the joke is now on him.

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