The prime minister has two moods: sheepish and ebullient. At yesterday’s coronavirus briefing in Downing Street he was sheepish. He didn’t want to be there. The briefing was late starting, briskly conducted and brought to an abrupt end. But the scientific advisers made him do it.
The India variant is alarming and they know they will have to answer to the public inquiry if it all goes wrong, so I assume that they made it clear to Boris Johnson that he would have to do something. He has overruled them before – last September, when they wanted a “circuit-breaker” lockdown – but presumably didn’t feel he could do so again.
I don’t think he is so worried about the public inquiry: he gets to decide who chairs it after all, and it won’t report until after the election. But he can’t have scientific advisers going public with their disagreements, and he certainly doesn’t want any of them to resign.
So Johnson put himself in front of the camera to deliver the kind of message a political leader never wants to give: that it’s all a bit worrying, but we don’t have enough information yet. “I urge you to be extra cautious,” he said at one point, while also saying that Monday’s opening of indoor service at pubs and restaurants would go ahead. Relax but don’t relax. It brought back an echo of Matt Lucas’s defining skit of the confusion over easing the first lockdown last year: “Go to work; don’t go to work.”
Johnson was defensive when pressed on why he had delayed banning flights from India. We were more concerned about the South Africa variant at the time, he said, which is not an answer. “Don’t forget everyone coming from India, or indeed anywhere else, had to face very tough quarantine rules,” he said, which isn’t an answer either.
It looks as if that decision fits into a pattern with which we are already familiar: of a prime minister reluctant to act swiftly, and then being forced to do what he has resisted after much of the damage has been done. This is a simplification, but there is enough truth in it for it to have firmly established itself as the story of the British government’s handling of the pandemic.
Sometimes, there have been good reasons for holding back. In the early stages, in March last year, Johnson was being advised by Sage, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, to delay a lockdown. In September, it is not clear that a circuit-break would have worked (it didn’t in Wales).
But the delay in ordering the ban on flights from India does seem to have been driven by politics. Johnson was reluctant to cancel his trip to India because he sees Indian trade deals as such an important part of his post-Brexit vision of Britain in the world. He then didn’t want to offend Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, by banning flights.
So he got the worst of both worlds – allowing the pressure for a ban to build up, and giving everyone who wanted to get back to the UK from India time to travel before the ban was finally imposed. With the result that he ended up in the purpose-built media centre yesterday, looking sheepish.
As ever, however, Johnson found it hard to stay sheepish for long, and his ebullient alter ego kept fighting to seize the mic. “It is also possible that we could be on track,” he declared, cheerfully. The India variant could turn out not to be so scarily transmissible, he said. “This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible that we’ll go ahead with stage four [the 21 June lifting of most restrictions].”
Again, this fits with a pattern of behaviour with which we have become familiar: of the prime minister optimistically predicting a return to normal, before returning to sheepish mode as new restrictions have to be announced.
This time, though, it really is different, because the vaccines do seem to put some limit on the worst-case scenarios. So far, the vaccines seem to work against all variants, and so even if the India variant is a setback, it seems unlikely to lead to the doomsday scenarios of the first and second waves.
In which case, the sheepish pusher-to of stable doors may end up being given the benefit of the doubt, again, by the British people. I suspect the tougher attack, launched by Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, in her Times interview – that the difference between her and Johnson is that “I won’t kill your granny” – won’t persuade the unpersuaded. She was talking about a different stable door – that of care homes – which was shut too late against the discharge of infected patients from hospitals last year.
It is easy to imagine a different prime minister acting more quickly and decisively at several points during this crisis, and towards the end of last year Johnson’s popularity was deep into the negative half of the graph, but then the cavalry of the vaccines came over the hill, and since then he seems to be blamed surprisingly little for his frequent inability to make up his mind.