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- Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since 2019
Boris Johnson’s one minute and 40 second video announcing there would be no further Covid restrictions in England before Christmas was more revealing than he realised. He has travelled far from the daily Downing Street Covid press conferences at the start of the pandemic, which genuinely engaged the public and disseminated vital (if sometimes mixed) messages.
At a critical moment, Johnson has made two public statements on Covid this week – Monday’s pool clip (shared among broadcasters, who take turns to send one journalist to ask a few questions) and last night’s in-house video with no reporters present. Pointedly, the BBC declined to run any clips from it on its news bulletins, as Number 10 hoped, so it was hardly a communications triumph.
The BBC rightly concluded that if this line were crossed, Downing Street wouldn’t even allow pool clips in future; Johnson could read from a script, safe in the knowledge he would not be quizzed about it. We would have government messaging by Twitter video. The Chinese Communist Party would be proud of it.
It tells us how much trouble Johnson is in when he wants to avoid even a few questions. Indeed, his last two pool clips have hardly gone well. Quizzed by Sky News’s Sam Coates on Friday, he appeared to blame the Tories’ crushing defeat in the North Shropshire by-election on the media’s “constant litany of stuff about politics and politicians” – meaning the totally irrelevant question of whether those who made the Covid rules a year ago were breaking them at Downing Street parties.
On Monday, Johnson told ITV News’s Anoushka Asthana that the garden event in May 2020 involved “meetings of people at work, talking about work”. As one government comms veteran told me: “Why don’t they just stop lying? It’s worse than the original offence and prolonging their agony. The public know they are lying but they can’t stop doing it.”
Why have we had no press conference yet this week? Firstly, advisers like Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, who provided useful cover for Johnson in the pandemic’s earlier stages, would be asked about Sage’s view that urgent action is needed to combat the Omicron variant. Instead of “ministers versus scientists”, Johnson’s second non-announcement of curbs won newspaper headlines for the second day running that he had “saved Christmas”.
He knows further measures will likely be needed soon afterwards but desperately wants to avoid another broken promise after telling us this Christmas would be better than last year’s. Secondly, a full-scale press conference would open him up to questions about last year’s Downing Street parties, reminding millions of viewers about them.
All prime ministers use the media to their advantage. Having watched seven of them on the Westminster beat for the past 40 years, I can’t think of another who routinely avoided journalists’ questions in the way Johnson does. Running away from Andrew Neil at the 2019 election was bad enough (Jeremy Corbyn didn’t, thinking Johnson would also give him an interview). Now Johnson keeps sit-down interviews with broadcasters to the very minimum – he avoided Radio 4’s Today programme for two years –and prefers to speak to Tory-supporting newspapers. Remarkably, even in a national emergency. It’s bad for democracy; the public has a right to see their leaders held to account by the media. It’s almost as if we’ve gone back to the grainy first TV broadcasts in the 1950s when a deferential reporter would ask: “Is there anything you would like to say today, prime minister?”
Today the devolved administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to approve post-Christmas restrictions, including in pubs. Scotland has already done so. But in England, Johnson puts off the evil day, underlining his weakness. An unexpected outbreak of traditional cabinet government happened only because Johnson is too feeble to impose more curbs, as he surely would have done two months ago. He is haunted by the shadow of the 100 Tory lockdown sceptics who rebelled last week.
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Johnson’s nightmarish dilemma is: should he carry on hoping that more optimistic data about Omicron’s severity turns up – and there are now some tentative positive signs – or issue mere guidance about people’s behaviour that might not prevent hospitals being overwhelmed, wrecking the Tories’ hopes of being trusted on the NHS (some ministers fear for a generation)? Or should he bite the bullet on some post-Christmas restrictions, knowing the headlines will say he has “cancelled New Year” and that measures requiring another Commons vote, perhaps in an emergency session next week, would provoke another big Tory rebellion?
Support from the cabinet is no longer assured, especially while Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, the leading contenders to succeed Johnson, play to the gallery on the Tory backbenches – to Johnson’s intense irritation. He is finding out how hard it is to govern when the skids are under you.
So crucial decisions are being shaped by the internal politics of the Conservative Party with public health factored in, rather than the other way round. For now, the prime minister’s indecision is final. If his gamble of delaying curbs fails to pay off, it will be fatal.