With Raab at the reins, things are really getting finger-lickin' bad

John Crace
Photograph: Pippa Fowles/AP

Cast your mind back to the Tory leadership contest last June. Back then, Dominic Raab was voted out even before the last five Undateables of Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart got to appear in a live televised debate. This means Conservative MPs considered Raab to be a worse option than both someone as pathologically untrustworthy as the Govester, and a man, in Stewart, who would soon not even be a member of the party.

Now take a deep breath, preferably not within two metres of a stranger: with Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock temporarily out of action, Raab has been the de facto leader of the country for the last five days. Or at least the politician tasked with doing all the front-of-house prime ministerial stuff. Not that we would have necessarily known, as no one can recall having seen the foreign secretary in person for more than a week. Rumour has it he had yet more unfinished body-disposal business to take care of first. Having a stand-in prime minister that looks like the serial killer in every Netflix miniseries is not altogether reassuring.

Yet we are where we are, and shortly after 5pm, Raab, flanked by the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, and the medical director for Public Health England, Yvonne Doyle, took centre stage for the daily Downing Street press conference. Complete with a new logo, on lecterns that looked like they had been knocked up out of police crime-scene tape. Presumably, Dom has picked up plenty of rolls on his travels.

He did not get off to the best of starts. Just as Raab was going through the daily checklists of things not to do to spread the coronavirus, he repeatedly licked his fingers. The bloke who was doing the sign-language service for the BBC looked as if he was about to have a meltdown.

Raab’s main message, delivered in a deliberate – if slightly sweaty – monotone, was about the help he was planning to provide for Brits stranded abroad. While promising to do his best to repatriate everyone who was unable to get flights home, he managed to imply that most of those stuck in South America, Morocco and Cyprus had been dawdling on the beach to get the best of the winter sun and had failed to follow the spread of the pandemic on the news. It didn’t quite square with reports of frantic tourists stuck abroad who had found their flights had been cancelled. But better late than never, I suppose.

Neither were Vallance’s efforts to talk us through the science and the effects of the lockdown altogether successful – though the fault lay entirely with the IT team, rather than the chief scientific adviser. “Can we have the next slide please?” he snapped, somewhat impatiently. Which was the first that any of us knew he had actually been referring to previous slides up to this point, as none had appeared on screen. After that, we were rather playing catch-up. We were doing better than Italy and Spain, he observed, trying to be upbeat something that clearly doesn’t come naturally to him – and were about on a par with France. He didn’t explain why Germany and South Korea were so far ahead of us in reducing their mortality rates.

The questions from the media tried to pin things down a little, but Raab hasn’t spent years evading police custody without becoming a past master of the evasive answer. He couldn’t say if we were doing the right or wrong number of tests, and failed to explain why the UK had initially adopted a policy of coronavirus “no big deal” appeasement, which was why we were now right at the back of the queue for many of the medical supplies we needed.

Raab was quick to support the police, however, in their attempts to enforce the partial lockdown. After all, if they were busy stopping people from buying Easter eggs, then they wouldn’t be out and about investigating more serious crimes. He remained ambivalent about the idea that Brexiter death-cult libertarians should be allowed to do what they want, providing they wore a badge saying: “In the event of me or one of my relatives contracting the virus, we wish to refuse all hospital treatment.”

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The foreign secretary did, though, hint at a possible reckoning with China once the pandemic was over. Quite what shape that might take was left unsaid, though the Brexit party chairman, Richard Tice, was well ahead of him on this. He had made it clear he would decline any second-rate Chinese medical equipment, and would only accept ventilators that were British-made. Why else had we left the EU? Now was the time to take back control. Of our own deaths.

Halfway through a sentence, Raab abruptly ended the press conference and headed for the exit. Perhaps no foreign secretary was better than a bad foreign secretary. There were so many surfaces to touch, fingers to lick. And he didn’t know when his next chance might come.