Politicians, like poker players, have their tells, and one of Boris Johnson’s is that, when he knows he’s arguing a weak case, his delivery speeds up notably and his tone sounds even more rehearsed than usual. Today he must have known that he would be asked about his test and trace gaffe yesterday and, as Sir Keir Starmer duly raised it in his first question, Johnson was off at tape recorder setting X1.5. (God help the Hansard shorthand writers.) And after that – in a performance which was by no means his worst, but was typically underwhelming – it didn’t get any better.
Some of this can be explained by the fact that Johnson is a performer, rather than a debater, but some of his habitual second-rateness is just baffling. For example, it was obvious today that he would face a barrage of questions from the opposition about support for business, and what will replace the furlough scheme. It is also obvious that the Treasury is close to making a big announcement on this. Johnson did not need to say what it will be, but it would have been quite easy to craft a form of words to serve as pre-announcement pitch rolling that would have blunted the Labour and SNP attacks he was getting on this. Towards the end he came quite close to doing this. (See 12.24pm.) But that was after he took two hits from Starmer on the issue.
And it would not have been hard to draft a better response to questions about the test and trace mistake yesterday. A reminder, this is what Johnson said during the coronavirus statement:
[Labour] are talking absolute nonsense. Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.
The Tory MP Andrew Percy made a half-decent stab at defending Johnson yesterday, saying that sometimes words don’t come out quite as intended, and that of course the PM knows test and trace was vital. But this would have involved Johnson admitting that he was not perfect, and instead he launched into a convoluted justification involving wordy and rhetoric phraseology (another tell for when Johnson is up to no good). He said:
It is an obvious fact of biology and epidemiology that alas this disease is transmitted by human contact or aerosol contact.
Starmer skewered Johnson effectively on this, pointing out that the PM was contradicting what he said yesterday. He also skewered him over the alternative explanations given for the shortage of tests (see 12.08pm), and over schools, and what really matters to parents. “The point … isn’t whether the children have got Covid, it’s that they’ve got Covid symptoms and then they’re off school.”
But Starmer’s best moment came when responded to the suggestion that Labour have been talking down the NHS with the reference to his wife and family members who have worked for it. (See 12.11pm.) Given that no one in the Johnson family (at least, as far as we know) has ever had a job in the NHS, as put downs go, this did the trick very well.