Boris Johnson ‘feared Covid left UK infantilised and in state of doublethink’

Boris Johnson - Jeremy Selwyn
Boris Johnson - Jeremy Selwyn

Boris Johnson feared the Covid response left Britain infantilised and in a “permanent state of doublethink”, his former communications director has said.

Guto Harri claimed Mr Johnson had become uncomfortable with the size of the state in the wake of more than £300 billion of spending in response to the pandemic.

Speaking on his LBC podcast Unprecedented, Mr Harri recalled warnings during top-level meetings about the effects of more than a year of draconian restrictions on everyday life, including three lockdowns.

“He basically feared that the UK had become infantilised, essentially addicted to Government telling them what to do, how to live their lives, who they could see, where they could go, et cetera — and also crucially, picking up their bills,” he said.

“He told Cabinet the state had grown too big, too fat and too expensive, that it had spent too much, and for a party supposedly of small government, that clearly wasn’t acceptable.

“So his words, pretty frankly put to the Cabinet, were: ‘We now live in a permanent state of doublethink. What we want to do is provide a more efficient service to taxpayers.’”

Mr Harri said Mr Johnson used other meetings to warn officials against talking about recessions to avoid a “self-fulfilling” prophecy as the economy struggled in the aftermath of the pandemic.

“Another issue for him was the lack of oomph as he saw it in the Treasury. ‘If Rishi’s a Thatcherite, let’s have it,’ he moaned on one occasion without any expectations.”

Mr Harri revealed the former prime minister — who is also said to have described the Treasury as a “bank manager” and likened it to the “computer says no” sketch from the comedy Little Britain — clashed with Mr Sunak, his then chancellor, over the scale of their party’s spending commitments.

“Rishi in his words had signed too many cheques, but got very little value for money. It was time for tax cuts, deregulation and dynamism,” he said.

In response, Mr Sunak “reminded the prime minister that it had been his vision to spend vast amounts of taxpayer funds on endless infrastructure projects, on new hospitals, on extra cops, extra doctors, extra nurses, extra all kinds of things”.

“And he used a very memorable phrase: ‘We had a song for a long time. Do we not want to sing it anymore?’”

Elsewhere in the podcast, Mr Harri described concern in Downing Street after Mr Johnson gave a speech to business leaders in November 2021 during which he lost his place, before speaking at length about his visit to the Peppa Pig World theme park.

“I think there’s this daily job of keeping up appearances. You have to perform so often — at private receptions, behind closed doors in meetings, with visiting dignitaries. And of course you have to give speeches.

“And there was one speech in particular, where Boris lost his thread and started talking about Peppa Pig world that left a lot of people seriously concerned about his state of mind.”

According to his former spin doctor, Mr Johnson had to be taken to hospital in a wheelchair during his bout of coronavirus in April 2020, weeks after the first lockdown was imposed.

He was unable to walk upstairs to the Downing Street flat and privately feared that doctors would have to perform a tracheostomy.

Johnson ‘hugely frustrated’ by Javid

As lockdown eased following the vaccine rollout, Mr Johnson is said to have become “hugely frustrated” by Sajid Javid, his then health secretary, for not setting out a clear enough reform agenda immediately.

“There was an almighty row over ending free universal Covid testing,” Mr Harri continued.

“The Saj dug in with a curiously well rehearsed line about being asked to disarm when the enemy is still lurking out there. But testing was costing £2 billion a month.”

He added that Mr Johnson believed the public had become “epileptically bored” of Covid and personally deemed it “a matter of stupendous irrelevance” as long as preparations were made for handling any future pandemics.

“He carried the day on that occasion and saved a fortune,” said Mr Harri.

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson said he had handed over all of his unredacted WhatsApp messages and notebooks from the time of the pandemic to the Government in a challenge to Mr Sunak.

He said he wanted the material to be given in full to the Covid inquiry, despite the Cabinet Office so far refusing to submit unredacted messages and documents.

An ally of Sajid Javid said: “This is an interesting version of history. Despite political reluctance from some quarters, Sajid was the champion of NHS reform. The facts about pandemic policies will come out in the Independent Inquiry.”

A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “Boris had no part in this podcast and does not recognise any of its contents.”