Motor misfires as PM tries to steer away from car crash of night before

Boris Johnson acts out half-remembered impression of himself in near-empty Commons

There are few places more unforgiving than a near-empty House of Commons. Without the roar of sycophantic backbenchers cheering his every empty promise or cabinet sidekicks to feed him answers to difficult questions, Boris Johnson is hopelessly exposed.

He somehow looks both much older than his 55 years and yet also much younger. The hollow man-child who finds himself of necessity self-reliant, yet with few inner resources on which to rely, can now only act out some half-remembered impressions of himself.

On Monday, for his first coronavirus statement – hard to believe that it has taken the prime minister five months to address parliament – Johnson chose to adopt the more grown-up, serious act. With limited success. Unsurprising, really, given that his prime goal was to sweep up the debris from his car-crash televised statement the night before that only managed to further confuse everyone.

How he must wish he had stuck to protocol and waited till he had got at least some of his ducks in a row before sounding off. But Johnson has never been able to resist the big audience, even if it’s certain to end in hubris. He’s hard-wired to self-destruct.

As so often, he began by distancing himself from any responsibility for the crisis. That all belonged to an entirely different Johnson. One from whom he had now entirely split.

So, far from moaning about one of the highest death rates in Europe, we should be celebrating the fact that 500,000 people had not died. And just wait till he found out which government had been responsible for the lack of personal protective equipment and testing and the crisis in care homes. Then there would be hell to pay.

But mostly Johnson wanted to make clear that the parts of Sunday’s televised speech that people had found confusing weren’t really as confusing as all that. Although it might appear that he was easing the lockdown, the reality was that nothing had changed. All he was doing was restating the regulations he had put in force back in March that rather too many people had interpreted too zealously.

When he had said that people should stay at home wherever possible, it had never occurred to him for a minute that people would take him at his word. So now he just wanted all those people whom he had always meant to carry on working to get back to work instead of staying at home.

Though, obviously, people should only go back to work if they could get there without taking public transport, if their employers had implemented proper social distancing measures in the workplace and they didn’t have any problems with childcare. The very reasons why most people had stopped going to work in the first place. And people could now go swimming in the sea and go for a drive because they were basically already doing that of their own accord.

The good news for Johnson was that Keir Starmer had only six minutes to point out the obvious flaws. The Labour leader could happily have gone on for at least an hour and still barely scratched the surface.

When were the new regulations meant to come in place? Monday or Wednesday? And why were there still no guidelines on how and in what circumstances people should return to work? What would happen to those workplaces that could only safely accommodate a quarter of their previous staff? Did the new quarantine measures merely apply to air travel or were ports affected as well? And, and, and ... it was all too clear Starmer had a far better idea of what the government’s plans were than the prime minister.

In reply, Johnson merely rattled off a few random sentences, only a few of which connected to the previous one. The man with the golden voice has lost the gift of language. The best he could manage was that good old British common sense would win through in the end, because that’s the one thing the coronavirus wouldn’t be expecting. Just Stay Alert!

He’d be guided by the science throughout and if the odd town needed to be shut down then he wouldn’t hesitate to do it – how, he couldn’t say – but the plan was for all employers to behave as they always did, with their workers’ best interests at heart, and for primary schools to reopen in June. Social distancing would be maintained by applying Velcro pads to the floor so that the children wouldn’t be able to move for the entire day. And some of them would wear masks and some wouldn’t, depending on how they felt.

Every Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MP was at pains to point out that Johnson was speaking for England only, and that they would be sticking with the advice that had more or less worked so far.

But Johnson wouldn’t hear a word of it. As far as he was concerned, his new guidelines applied to the whole of the UK even though they didn’t. His idea of consensus is unusual to say the least. It won’t be long before the people’s republic of Tooting declares independence and also chooses to go it alone. Guard posts on the Streatham border.

Still, at least a few Tory MPs found time to telephone in a few sycophantic helpful apercus about what a marvellous job Johnson was doing. A victory for good old-fashioned British nonsense.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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