And so here we are on Day Three of Did Boris Johnson Say Something Execrable About Piling Up Dead Bodies? The latest is more or less unchanged. He says he didn’t. An on-the-record government spokesperson says he didn’t. But the BBC and ITV have spoken to people who say they heard him say it, and they would, hypothetically speaking, testify under oath that he did so.
So the question now is not simply, Did Boris Johnson Say Something Execrable? But Did Boris Johnson Lie About Saying Something Execrable? Both of which lead to the inevitable follow-up question: Does It Really Matter?
Well, does it? That Boris Johnson says execrable things is hardly a revelation. This would not even be his first “dead bodies” related faux pas – though the dead bodies in this case are British ones, and given that the main bit of his job is to try and keep British people alive, and he has spectacularly failed to do that, on a quite breathtaking scale, it is especially unfortunate.
Does it really matter if he has been telling lies? Well, it should do, but it doesn’t seem to. Boris Johnson is a prolific liar. It is customary at this point to repeat the fact that he has twice been sacked for lying, but that barely scratches the surface.
Johnson was sacked as a very junior reporter on The Times for, in his own words, “sandpapering” some quotes in a very unimportant story about Edward II and his alleged lover, Piers Gaveston. He was later sacked by then Tory party leader Michael Howard for lying about having had an affair. Having an affair is a terrible thing to do, but, well, it does happen, and it does seem somewhat absurd to expect people having affairs to be honest about them.
Lies in public office, however, are a more serious question. Lies in the very highest public office even more serious. But you don’t have to think or look very hard to find them.
When Boris Johnson forced through the prorogation of parliament, 18 months ago, he said he had done so because there hadn’t been a Queen’s Speech for two years, and a Queen’s Speech was urgently required. He said so with a smirk, with his usual, in some respects honest, way of acknowledging that he and everybody else knows he is lying. In the same interview, within about 20 seconds, he was freely admitting what everybody already knew – that the prorogation had been done in order to force Brexit through the House of Commons without its agreement.
He would fail in this regard, and have to call a general election, the campaign for which involved him going to Northern Ireland and telling business people there that there would be “no additional checks” on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the mainland, a claim that he cannot possibly have known was not true. None of these lies has held him back. It seems unlikely that saying something terrible and then denying it will do so either.
We also know that many of Boris Johnson’s most egregious comments are not accidents. They are not the act of a buffoon who simply cannot stop himself saying something terrible. We know, for example, when he went on live television and bragged about having shaken hands with coronavirus patients in a hospital, that it wasn’t a slip of the tongue, a bit of bravura, but very much a pre-planned intention, to not say what his advisers had told him to. He wanted people to carry on as normal; that is what he believes in.
If he did say, in a private meeting, that we should “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” before there will be another lockdown, well, it hardly seems far-fetched to suggest it was not done through an irresistible urge to say something appalling. Rather, these very high level meetings, in which incredibly consequential decisions are made, are to a great extent negotiations between the powerful people involved in them. If, at the end of the meeting, the prime minister chose to make it clear, in highly memorable language, that he would not back down again, that there would be no more lockdowns, then, well, so be it.
But from here follows the only big question, the one that really does matter, and we know the answer to it anyway. Did the prime minister delay the first lockdown, and indeed the second and the third ones, simply because he is so ideologically opposed to the idea of them? If he did do that, then the evidence is also clear that he caused thousands upon thousands of excess deaths. Each excess death is estimated to have led to the average loss of around 10 years of human life. The scale of life lost is truly horrific. A million years of human life, at least.
And the evidence that this is precisely what happened could hardly be stronger. There are media reports full of comments from scientists and others who were involved. There is the prime minister’s own grim catalogue of public comments on the matter. In February last year, he warned that other countries would overreact to coronavirus, and introduce measures that would go “far beyond what’s medically rational”.
The “let the bodies pile high” comment also appears to have been accompanied by an observation that lockdowns don’t achieve anything. There was, a year ago, possibly some truth in this. They are a delaying tactic, certainly. It is very hard to use them to get rid of the virus entirely. But delay matters. We now know, of course, that suppressing the spread of Covid-19 creates time to find treatments for it, and time to develop a vaccine.
If there is an inquiry, it is likely to conclude that this was the nature of the disagreement within government all through 2020. Many, if not most, simply thought no vaccine would be forthcoming, that delaying the inevitable pain was only heaping up economic pain to go with the terrible loss of life.
Trouble is, these people turned out to be wrong. Boris Johnson turned out to be totally wrong. And the price for that are the bodies that have already been piled high in their tens of thousands, when they absolutely did not need to be so. That is the only question that matters. And we already know the answer.