You’re reading The Waugh Zone, our daily politics briefing. Sign up now to get it by email in the evening.
It was exactly 12 months since Boris Johnson made a televised address to the nation, declaring “this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home”. No.10 had urged us journalists to stop using the word “lockdown”, but here it was made real. Just days before his sombre message, the PM famously joked about shaking hands in Covid hospitals and “squashing the sombrero”.
And one year on, as he marked that anniversary, his political modus operandi really hadn’t changed much: the crunching gear changes between light and dark, the hint of impatience with the same old questions, the short attention span and the determination to look onward and upward. If anything, the briefly sombre tone he struck on Tuesday felt even more perfunctory than usual.
One minute he was talking about the last 12 months being “an epic of endurance”, as if Covid were a technicolour feature film. The next he was talking about “children’s birthday parties cancelled”, and the next still he was lamenting the losses of loved ones who couldn’t even have their family beside them as they died.
A new announcement was that “at the right moment” the government would build a permanent memorial to those who had died (something this column has called for). Yet before long he was back on the upbeat curve of vaccine success and “jab by jab” the nation getting back its freedoms. Maybe he felt he had done all the death stuff at the start of the year, when marking another milestone: the 100,000 death toll for the UK.
To be fair, at least tonight the PM notably didn’t repeat his highly dubious claim in January that “we did everything we could” to minimise the loss of life. He also didn’t repeat his claim from the first wave that he had taken the “right decisions at the right time”. Instead, he said “there are probably many things that we wish that we’d known and many things that we wish we’d done differently at the time, in retrospect”.
What exactly those things were, he wasn’t yet ready to tell us (“tell it to the judge” I hear you yell at the back). But when asked directly if he had been too slow to lockdown not once but three times, he replied: “These are very hard decisions and there are no good outcomes either way.” That sounded very much like him trying to give a parity of esteem to both health and the economy, though history may judge he made things worse for both by dithering on tough lockdowns in spring, autumn and winter.
Far from being a new opportunity to atone for any errors, the press conference even turned at one point into a mini Tory broadcast for the local elections, with Johnson attacking the Labour Mayor of London and the Labour-run Croydon council. When asked about his own father benefitting from travel exemptions for owners of holiday second homes, a grin flickered across his face as he signally failed to remember what the exact question was.
Once the questions were over, the PM couldn’t wait to get away from the podium sharpish, uttering a curt “thank you very much!” before he turned heel and left. Having effectively rung in his performance, at times sounding on the edge of boredom, he was off. Perhaps it was the prospect of a more fun time at the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers that really appealed.
And indeed at that meeting, the jokes were let off the leash. He said the vaccine success was “driven by big pharma – and I don’t just mean the Chief Whip” [a reference to Mark Spencer being, yes, a big farmer]. He even ventured that the vaccine triumph was “because of capitalism, because of greed, my friends”.
Of course, that narrative doesn’t fit with AstraZeneca selling the drug at cost price, nor Oxford University virologists’ genius, nor even the government’s own interventionist bioscience strategy. All of which the PM mentioned, but he just couldn’t resist the desire to get an end-of-term laugh (MPs rise for the Easter break this week). Johnson’s critics would argue he knows more than most prime ministers about greed. In fact he often appears like a walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins (Lust? Tick! Gluttony? Tick! Sloth? Big tick!…you get the point)
Johnson instantly tried to retract his remarks and tell MPs to ignore them. Yet perhaps nervous of some MPs voting against his cautious route out of this lockdown, he had clearly wanted to tickle the troops, while reassuring them his roadmap would not be delayed further by the threat of rising cases in Europe. In jovio veritas, you could call it. He had warned the cabinet last week against believing in a vaccine bounce, yet here he was himself boinging like Zebedee.
Perhaps the most interesting bit of the press conference itself was when Johnson said his “biggest priority” was repaying the sacrifices of the younger generation (pupils and students). He could have widened that to include new ONS stats showing under-35s accounted for 88% of the jobs lost in the past year.
But it was notable that it was not the politician in the room but the medic who mentioned the pandemic’s impact on poverty, wealth and health. Whitty, not Johnson, who said Covid had pushed people on the borderline of deprivation into actual poverty, while also shining a light on existing health inequalities based on income. That tallied with a British Academy report warning of a “long shadow” cast by Covid on future inequality, yet the PM had nothing to say on Whitty’s analysis at all. Maybe greed isn’t good after all?
At 8pm, a candle was placed on the No.10 doorstep and earlier at noon Johnson stood for a minute’s silence in the cabinet room (snapped by his personal photographer). Maybe in private, away from any cameras, he really does think about the errors he made. At an emotional press conference after the Chilcot Report, I remember Tony Blair saying: “I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever know or believe”.
Right now, for a variety of reasons, it’s difficult to see Johnson ever saying something similar. With the “vaccine bounce” having more “cut-through” even than Brexit itself (according to internal Tory polling), he may just want to look forward to Easter, not back over the past 12 months. That memorial to the dead will have to wait for “the right moment” and so will the public inquiry.
Still, it’s worth recalling that a year ago in that first lockdown press conference, he predicted: “The people of this country will rise to that challenge – and we will come through it stronger than ever”. We may be more resilient thanks to scientific progress, but try telling those bereaved this past year that we are somehow “stronger” as a nation in the wake of 126,000 deaths.