Stay alert. Watch out. There’s a Boris about. All his life Boris Johnson has fantasised about being the next Winston Churchill, the nation’s saviour. But 75 years after Churchill declared the end of the second world war in Europe, all Boris could manage to do in his pre-recorded television statement – his minders don’t trust him to do anything live – was divide the United Kingdom. The Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish had all managed to distance themselves from the prime minister’s central message even before it had been broadcast. Forget the Churchill tribute act; these days Boris couldn’t even get a job as a Boris Johnson tribute act.
It was never intended to be this way. Boris was meant to be the man who could put a smile on the country’s face; the man who would get Brexit done with blind optimism and a few white lies. But the coronavirus has put paid to all that. It’s a virus that stubbornly resists any smooth-talking about taking back control.
And deep down, Boris knows that he’s well out of his depth – that he’s simply not up to the job. You can see it in his eyes, which have shrivelled to puffy pinpricks. And he’s lost the gift of language. At a time of crisis, a leader’s speech is supposed to be a source of inspiration and reassurance. Somehow all that Boris can manage to impart now is a sense of panic.
This time at least, Boris had made an effort. Smart suit, brushed hair. It was just the speech that was a mess. A more honest prime minister would have admitted that mistakes had been made in the handling of the crisis. But Boris is, deep down, a coward, a man who runs from the first hint of personal responsibility and has one eye already firmly on the public inquiry that will surely follow.
So what we got was more waffle about following the science and being grateful that even more people had not yet died. Why couldn’t the 65 million survivors be a bit more grateful? Not a word on why other countries were coping with the virus so much better than us. It must be a huge relief to the families of those who have died that the government didn’t choose to follow the South Korean science.
No one could have predicted the need for more personal protective equipment in care homes (unless they had actually read the Exercise Cygnus report that predicted just that). And we would soon be conducting hundreds of thousands of tests a day. Boris still clings to the belief that just by saying something, he can make it come true. Not only are we struggling to reach a target of just 100K a day without some creative accounting – we don’t even have the resources to process the results in under 10 days.
Having got his excuses and disclaimers out of the way, Boris got down to the substance of his speech. Or rather the lack of substance. Meet the new messaging: same as the old messaging. Only even vaguer and more confusing. Not so much 15 minutes of TV fame as uncomfortably like watching someone have a breakdown in front of you. Rather than just stay at home, Boris’s new maxim was to “Stay alert”. Less a slogan, more like a piece of advice to himself, given all the times he has taken his eye off the ball over the past few months. Even the writers of Dad’s Army wouldn’t have let Captain Mainwaring embarrass himself like that.
It was as if what had been missing from the British war effort had been some blackout curtains and taking down road signs in a bid to confuse and slow the progress of the coronavirus. The one war slogan that might have been more apt was “Careless talk costs lives”. Because few people’s talk has been more careless than the prime minister’s. He’s a Zen master whose only objective is to get to the end of any one sentence, with no thought for the consequences for those that follow. For Boris there is no past and no future. And, as things stand, not much of a present.
What was most striking was how little Boris had to say. His roadmap – or shape of a roadmap as he called it, making it sound uncomfortably like a homeopathic memory of a map – to the future looked uncomfortably like one of the M25. There were five exciting colours of alertness and the the promise of a Captain Marvel bio-science centre, but the bottom line was that it was still circular, with any number of still to be determined exit points, keeping alive the very real possibility that we might find ourselves back at the start.
Much of it was just the same – often contradictory – advice. Social distancing, staying at home wherever possible, going to work wherever possible. How people were meant to get to work on public transport while staying 2 metres apart was not explained. He also gnomically stated that the reproduction rate had now come down far enough for us to test arrivals at airports in a month’s time. Clearly he’s been spending too long talking to Priti Patel, who insists the UK has both too many and too few air passengers to make testing a viability.
There would also be some easing of the lockdown by the end of June (apart from the bits that might come sooner). (Or later.) It was all just a bit of a ramble, with nothing on the one question many people wanted answered: at what stage might people be allowed to see their family and friends again?
“This is our plan,” Boris concluded, having forgotten he had just said he didn’t really have a plan, other than to stay alert and keep buggering on – something the rest of the country is increasingly wishing Boris might personally reconsider. Remember those far-off days when you thought we had scraped the barrel with David Cameron and Theresa May?