The cameras had been broadcasting clips of absolutely nothing going on in Downing Street throughout the first two hours of BBC Breakfast. Almost as if the producers didn’t quite trust the prime minister not to back out of his first televised interview since the election and wanted to shame him into going through with it. Or at the very least to have footage of him sneaking out a rear window.
But for once Boris Johnson was as good as his word and shortly after 8am the BBC’s Dan Walker found himself face to face with a figure who looked as if he had just tumbled out of bed.
Let’s start with Iran, said Walker. Boris clasped his knees tightly, trying desperately to remember exactly where Iran was and why it was important. It was quite early in the morning. Then it came to him. “I don’t want a military conflict,” he said hesitantly. A decent enough start, given the circumstances – it will have come as a huge relief to a lot of people who might have been expecting him to declare war.
Gradually Johnson’s brain began to engage with itself. If not always with reality. He had been out of the country when the US had launched its drone strike on Qassem Suleimani, he said. On holiday, Walker reminded him. Yes, and Trump had sent him a Whatsapp message telling him to watch repeats of the attack on Fox News, but he hadn’t picked it up till much later as the wifi at the private bar on the beach was a bit iffy.
And no, he hadn’t for a minute thought of showing some leadership and coming home. How many more times in his life was he going to be offered a £20K-a-week villa on Mustique for absolutely nothing?
Sensing the interview was taking a turn for the worse, Boris reverted to his default position under pressure of making up policy as he went along. What really needed to happen next was for the US to come up with its own nuclear deal and then Iran, the UK and the other signatories could just tear up up the old Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The same JCPoA that the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, had spent 45 minutes defending in the Commons the previous day.
Walker kindly changed the subject before Boris could do any more damage.
“You’ve never dodged tricky issues in the past,” Walker now observed. Even Boris appeared shocked by this. He had spent a whole lifetime dodging the difficult questions. Especially when they are being asked by Andrew Neil or the Today programme. Or his close family.
But this time it turned out that the tricky question concerned Harry and Meghan’s future. Boris visibly relaxed. He clearly doesn’t care one way or the other and is merely relieved that the royals are giving him a bit of respite from the media spotlight. I’m sure they will work something out, he mumbled.
Walker then moved on to Brexit. “Your favourite subject,” he added. Now a rare moment of honesty escaped the prime minister’s lips. “Actually, it’s my least favourite subject,” he replied. Because every mention of it is a reminder of just how many lies he has told and of the reckoning he fears is to come.
But just as quickly, he retreated for cover – his tragedy is that he both longs to be seen yet knows he cannot survive the exposure – and went into full pifflepafflewifflewaffle. He was epically confident of getting a full trade deal. Very, very, very, confident. As in not confident at all. He was winging it again. With Johnson the probability of something happening is in inverse proportion to the hyperbole.
“Bung a bob for Big Ben bongs,” Boris bumbled. Alliteration cuts both ways. It would cost £500K to ring Big Ben on 31 January, but if there were enough people out there who were willing to stump up for the pleasure then he wouldn’t rule it out. After all, he had wasted £40m on a garden bridge that was never going to be built so he was no one to tell people how to spend their dosh. Besides, it was as close to a Brexit dividend as anyone was likely to get.
Boris did his best to talk over and distract Walker throughout the rest of the interview by talking nonsense – anything to run the clock down. But there was no disguising the fact we were watching a prime minister close to free fall in his free association. There’s a reason therapists often like to see their patients early in the morning. It’s because then they are less well defended and shrinks get to see the real person. The timing of the interview was turning out to be the biggest masterstroke of all.
“In the past few days we’ve done a couple more things that we’ve done,” was the closest to coherence Boris could manage. When asked what he planned to do in the next year for former Labour voters from the Midlands and the north he couldn’t really come up with anything but repeat previously discredited lies about building 40 new hospitals this year, next year, sometime, never.
He even forgot that he was already supposed to have a plan for social care provision in place and instead announced a proposal to come up with a plan at some point in the future. His only real commitment was to end the county (drugs) lines. Though he clearly hadn’t a clue how. It was like watching a panicky child think out loud.
By now Walker was looking increasingly disturbed. He wrapped things up with a gentle lob about veganuary. This was the breaking of Boris. The floodgates opened. He needed to lose weight, he sobbed. But he couldn’t do without cheese. Life without cheese was a crime against humanity. Nor did he have the concentration to go vegan. Or the self discipline. After all, it wasn’t as if these were qualities a country might reasonably expect of its prime minister.