Boris Johnson deserves some credit. In the last six months, from a standing start, the country’s coronavirus testing capacity has been vastly increased. And it is this increased capacity that has been the centrepiece of the strategy to contain the virus, which, against comparable countries, has been relatively successful.
He has boasted of these successes on numerous occasions, and with some justification, so it was always going to be interesting to see how he would come to the dispatch box of the House of Commons and laugh off the 16,000 positive cases that went missing because they were too big for the Excel spreadsheet – as if they didn’t really matter.
This sort of thing shouldn’t be hard for a serial liar. But then, while Johnson is one of the country’s most experienced liars, he also happens to be one of its least capable. It is often wrongly imagined that having been sacked twice for it (and hopelessly exposed so many times more than that) somehow boosts the prime minister’s credentials as a liar. The opposite is true. The very best liars are never found out. They walk among us in secret. Johnson, on the other hand, is kind of a journeyman liar. A bulls**t lemming, if you like, programmed only to wander gormlessly off the cliff of truth unless infrastructure is put in place to prevent him from doing so, though it never is.
When Keir Starmer raised the subject of the Excel spreadsheet that wasn’t big enough for the number of tests someone was trying to input into it, the prime minister replied with the following: “He can’t call it a human error and an Excel error. He can’t have it both ways.”
Not so much phoning it in as farting it in. Just wafting a noise out into the Commons chamber and hoping it might be sufficient to drag him through the next 10 seconds. Whatever he said, it would kill off a bit of time.
It is possible this sort of thing is strategic. To give answers so unimaginably pathetic that no semi-functioning human can find a way to even engage with them.
The prime minister would go on to say that “the data points – the cases – that we are looking at do not change the basic distribution of the disease”.
Whether anyone, including the prime minister himself, was meant to believe these words was never expressly made clear. The current strategy – and it is a good one – is one of easing and tightening restrictions based on the rate of increase in positive test results in specific local areas. And here was the prime minister, really and truly claiming that the disappearance and then re-emergence of fully 16,000 positive test results didn’t really change a thing.
At this point, naturally, we returned to the familiar structure of events. Starmer looks for answers with regard to the most recent egregious errors that have been made, and Johnson replies with what he imagines to be his coup de grace, that Starmer can’t decide whether he supports or opposes the government.
There is, of course, absolutely nothing there. Almost everybody supports the government’s overall strategy. The problem is that the government barely goes a day without revealing another new way in which it has failed at it.
He is the wastrel husband, sent to the shops for a pint of milk, and returning six hours later blind drunk and milk-free, who then tries to blame whoever’s idea it was to send him for the milk in the first place.
Everybody else must share in Johnson’s failures, for no more than the crime of agreeing that he should at least try to succeed.
We’re used to this, of course. It’s been months now. But never before has the overall picture of patheticness been offered up in microcosm too.
“He can’t call it a human error and an Excel error. He can’t have it both ways.”
The tragedy is not how bad it is, but that it’s the best that he can do, and we’re stuck with him.
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