Subdued Johnson just a piece of flotsam being buffeted around | John Crace

The prime minister insisted in the Commons that Covid would be beaten by March – but which year?

Looking on the bright side for the prime minister, he didn’t have any more credibility to lose. As a rule of thumb, you can pretty much guarantee that for everything that Boris Johnson says, the opposite will turn out to be true.

As with Brexit, so it is for the coronavirus. In March, he insisted the virus would be defeated in 12 weeks. That went well. In July, Boris promised the country would be back to normal by Christmas. No one’s putting any money on that now.

In his statement to the Commons on the latest national lockdown, Johnson insisted the virus would be beaten by March. He didn’t say what year.

It’s hard to know which is the more bewildering: the fact that we have a prime minister who is both incompetent and unable to distinguish between fact and fiction; or that there are so many Conservative MPs who are consistently taken aback by the failings of their leader. You would have thought by now it would have been 203 times bitten, 204 times shy. But no.

They continue to cut him some slack, albeit increasingly grumpily; as if they are as surprised as anyone that Johnson has failed to deliver on his promises and each time insist he is now on a final warning. Something has to change, they warn. But it never does.

Johnson was in the Commons to give the statement he had already been forced to give at Saturday’s Downing Street press conference after details of the national lockdown agreed between him, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock had been mysteriously leaked to the papers the night before. Not that it was a national lockdown, mind, because Boris had promised there would not be another national lockdown. Rather it was a lockdown that would be imposed nationally, albeit with schools and universities remaining more or less open.

This was a subdued Boris. Even by his own standards, this latest U-turn was a humiliation. An admission that he has not just lost control of the coronavirus, he’s lost control of the government. He’s just a piece of flotsam being buffeted around. Not that it stopped him lying, of course. Just that the lies have become progressively more feeble, as if even he has stopped the pretence of believing them.

He began by stating that the government had had to change course because the scientific data had changed on Saturday. The chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer had actually given their latest briefing to the cabinet well before that, which was why the lockdown had been agreed on Friday. Sage had called for a “circuit breaker” back in September and had been clear a tiered series of regional lockdowns were going to be insufficient to contain the spread of the virus.

But Boris didn’t want to upset his more libertarian MPs, so he decided to kill a few more people instead. Besides it would have been shameless opportunism to introduce a lockdown any sooner.

For weeks now, Johnson has been dismissively referring to Keir Starmer as Captain Hindsight. Now he was tacitly forced to admit the Labour leader was Captain Foresight and that he was General Hopelessness. Because the measures that Boris was introducing were ones which Starmer had been demanding for the best part of a month. Something which Keir was not slow to point out.

The new lockdown was both harder and longer than the one Labour had proposed and less likely to succeed.

With Labour having promised Johnson the necessary votes on Wednesday, most of the rest of the session was a free for all with the prime minister as the fall guy.

A lot of the flak came as friendly fire. Tory Brexiters hadn’t fought to close borders only to curtail every Englishman’s right to go into any pub they wanted to get Covid-19.

Just as long as the virus wasn’t caught from Johnny Foreigner then all was tickety-boo. You could die happy knowing the virus had spread from a Brit. Why bother flying to Zurich, when you can turn the whole of the UK into a Dignitas hub?

Who knows, it could turn out to be a huge money-spinner?

The longer the session went on, the more confused Johnson’s answers became. He was adamant the country would return to regional lockdowns on 2 December, even though he could give no guarantees the rate of infection would have come down sufficiently over the course of the next month.

He guessed it would be down to parliament what happened next, he said unhappily. So that was a yes and a no.

“The country wants politicians to act together,” he shrugged sadly, apparently unaware of his own failure to act on scientific evidence and work with Labour a month ago – and of the fact that the MPs least inclined to work together were his own. Some wanted golf courses reopened, others were happy to compromise on pitch and putt. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson said that he had come to hear Churchill but had only got Halifax-style appeasement instead.

What became more and more evident the longer the session went on was that Boris was out of ideas. Other than to do too little too late. He wasn’t even sure what he had and hadn’t promised Scotland by way of bailout. Starmer slumped back in his seat.

He knew what we all knew: that we would be back in the Commons on 2 December with little change in the nation’s health, to have the same arguments over lockdowns and the failure of test and trace all over again. You can cancel Christmas now.


Contributor

John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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