Like most narcissists, Boris Johnson is unable to conceive of other people having an independent existence. Rather, they are mere satellites orbiting his ego. Mere objects whose only function is to do his bidding. And to be fair, it’s a world view that has served him well enough up to now as he’s cruised his way, with a flamboyant mixture of broken promises, outright lies and back-stabbing, to his life’s goal of becoming prime minister. Family, friends and colleagues that have been trampled upon along the way are just collateral damage.
But there are growing signs that many people are increasingly deciding that enough is enough. Tory backbenchers have got fed up with being left out in the cold from the government’s coronavirus legislation and the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, made no attempt to disguise his anger on Wednesday at the way parliament had been sidelined. But the person who most gets under Boris’s skin is Keir Starmer. Because more than six months in, he has yet to get the better of the Labour leader.
It must be driving Johnson mad. Prime minister’s questions was always meant to be the Boris Show. The half-hour in the week when the country laughed at his jokes and enjoyed his put-downs. Except it hasn’t worked out like that at all. Partly because the Labour leader is visibly better prepared, but mostly because he refuses to be cast in Johnson’s image. Keir is very much his own man: he keeps his questions short and direct and calls out Boris’s bluster for the bullshit it is.
Today, Johnson was wrongfooted from the start when Starmer wondered why Luton was the only town to have gone into extra lockdown restrictions and come out of them. Boris’s reply that Luton had “pulled together” won’t have gone down well with the 25% of the country who live in the other 47 regions that are still living under extra strict measures, as it rather implied they must have been taking the piss.
For the rest of the session Starmer walked rings round Johnson. He picked him up for not even knowing what restrictions he had put in place where. The best that Boris could come up with was that it was up to everyone in each area to find out the rules for themselves. Then Starmer tackled the prime minister on his definition of “viable businesses” and the level of support he was prepared to provide. “Putting an arm around the whole country” didn’t quite square with an angry email Starmer had received from a wedding planner in the chancellor’s Richmond constituency.
By the end, Boris was merely an infant “mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms” yet to advance beyond Jaques’s first stage of man. Unable to come up with any clever – or even not so clever – replies, he merely yapped out his distress that anyone should dare to question him on anything and to accuse the Labour leader of sniping from the sides. Keir lazily opened an eye and observed that he had supported the restrictions throughout, it was just the latest detail and strategy he was after. None was forthcoming. Misery was engraved on Johnson’s face. Not so much at the humiliation, but by its nature. It had all been so casual. Starmer now barely has to get out of second gear to win PMQs at a canter.
It felt very much as if the only reason the prime minister held a Downing Street coronavirus press briefing later in the afternoon was to remind himself as much as the rest of the country that he was in charge, because it turned out that he didn’t really have anything to say that we didn’t already know. The number of cases was rising significantly but at present he had no plans to impose any further measures in any area of the country.
The press conference all felt a bit hit and hope. There was a word of encouragement for students that he would personally make sure they would all go home for Christmas, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. But there was no indication how we might get through the coming months or how to prevent Santa catching the virus. “We will fight and beat the disease,” Boris said, as if every other country had just given up on the idea. “We will not throw in the sponge.” Though, in truth, it rather looked as if Boris had done precisely that. He looked dreadful, his eyes puffy and bloodshot and his complexion pasty, as he repeated the measures he was taking that were clearly not really working that well. He sounded like a man waiting on a miracle.
There again, Johnson was flanked by Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance. In the early days of the No 10 briefings the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser proved themselves to be rather more amenable to the prime minister’s more optimistic interpretation of events, but both men have clearly got fed up with having their reputations burned. Like so many who get too close to Boris, they feel the need to separate for their own sanity. Repeatedly bitten, eventually shy.
So Whitty and Vallance were there to provide constant downbeat reminders that the numbers were going in the wrong direction. There was no magic bullet. Yes, the outbreaks were more localised at present, but there were no guarantees that situation would not change. The nature of epidemics was that they could get out of control very quickly. And no, they didn’t regret having given a pessimistic forecast the week before. This time it would be the grown-ups who would be in control. They’d ensure Boris took the necessary measures even if they had to twist his arm.