Johnson’s language was crass in crucial meeting - GulfToday

Johnson’s language was crass in crucial meeting

Sean O'Grady


Associate Editor of the Independent.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

It’s unscientific and unfair, but journalists, like anyone, often have to form a judgement about the accuracy of something based on whether it has “the ring of truth” about it, based on past experience, known patterns of behaviour and the credibility of the turn of phrase.

It is, then, pretty obvious that if Boris Johnson didn’t actually say at that crucial October meeting about a second lockdown, “no more lockdowns — let the bodies pile high in their thousands”, he said something very like it. And if he didn’t say any of it, he certainly thought it and argued against another hard hit to civil liberties, the economy, the public finances and having all his plans for his premiership trashed by some stupid virus.

We know that if he were still writing columns for The Telegraph and The Spectator, and thus free to indulge his base instincts, he’d be railing against the restrictions, fashioning himself as a warrior for the rights of the “free born Englishman”, and a “lockdown sceptic” so far as the science is concerned. That, after all, is what his journalistic ex-colleagues have been up to. Johnson even managed to contract COVID himself because he didn’t take it seriously and follow the advice of his own scientists.

The inevitable source told the Daily Mail, perfectly plausibly: “The PM hates the idea of lockdowns. He kept saying, ‘there’s no evidence they even work’ and that ‘it goes against everything I’ve stood for’. But he was outnumbered — and ended up sitting in sullen silence as the others told him he had no choice.”

After the so-called “chatty rat” leaked these arguments on the Friday night, Johnson was bounced into announcing the second round of restrictions on the Saturday afternoon. In other words, after a fashion, the British system of cabinet government tempered by selective leaking has, once again, been shown to work surprisingly well. A coalition of Michael Gove, Matt Hancock and, presumably, Sage and others, prevailed and the prime minister and the chancellor were defeated in open argument.

It was the same argument about the economy and liberty vs public health that was being played out in Sage, in parliament, in the media, on social media and across the dinner tables of the land. It had to be thrashed out. In the end, the “right” result was arrived at, and we locked down, albeit in complicated “tier” form with increasing divergences across the UK.

The bodies did not pile high, or higher than they might otherwise have. In the end, Johnson’s cri de coeur was just that, an outburst of frustration rather than an instruction to the civil service to commit mass murder. I’m not entirely convinced he meant it, and certainly not literally. He’s bad, but not that bad, surely?

Even so, it is hardly a reassuring or flattering glimpse into the mind of the prime minister. Those who know him best, including his fiancee, are not always complimentary about him. He’s mean with money, selfish, unfaithful, idle, self-indulgent, vain, unprincipled, a proven liar and, as Dominic Grieve put it so well, “a vacuum of integrity”.

What is now becoming apparent, with the row about who paid for doing up the flat in Downing Street, is that his bad habits are shading into the suspicion of corruption, and costing the taxpayer money. People might well not care whether he takes phone calls from that fella with the vacuum cleaners, but they are always bothered about when politicians take liberties with their money — as the MPs expenses’ scandal showed a decade ago. “Greedy Boris” is not so lovable.

A budget of £30,000 to do up a flat in good condition in a fine location with 24-hour security laid on seems very generous to most hard-pressed Britons subsisting on furlough. They do not share the reported horror experienced by Carrie and Boris about the “John Lewis furniture nightmare” they were confronted with on arrival at the private quarters in Downing Street — and there is that unhappy echo of the “John Lewis list” that loomed so large in the MPs expenses’ scandal. If it was good enough for the Camerons and the Mays, what was the problem? Was it really just too bourgeois?

Will the £60,000 worth of new sofas, wallpaper and curtains installed in Boris and Carrie’s terraced love story turn out to be his “duck house”, an emblem of how out of touch our rulers are? I rather fear it will, and, added to whatever is on Dominic Cummings’s cache of tape recordings, it will shorten Johnson’s political life.

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