Some men are born mediocre. Some achieve mediocrity. Others have mediocrity thrust upon them. In 1940 we had Winston Churchill. In 2020 we have Boris Johnson, a man who believes himself to be Churchill’s reincarnation, but is nothing more than a poundshop imitation.
Where to start with the prime minister’s TV address to the nation? The trademark smirk? The nervous hand gestures? The fact he thinks he’s fighting a war, not a pandemic? Or just the brazen cheek as Boris tried to claim the credit for what he called the stunning triumph over the coronavirus so far? The 50,000 dead and the endless screw-ups of his own government, from care homes to test and trace, were simply airbrushed out of history. The prime minister is not just a man without quality. He is a man without shame.
All this was just a warm up for the grandiose announcement of a few extra restrictions that had already been announced and would almost certainly prove to be insufficient to cope with the second wave. Boris apologised for the new measures, though he laid the blame squarely on the British people for not having been able to abide by the existing measures. Perhaps he should have run that line past Dominic Cummings who set an example so many followed.
“Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour,” he said, winding up the Churchill rhetoric. “There are unquestionably difficult months to come. And the fight against Covid is by no means over. I have no doubt, however, that there are great days ahead. But now is the time for us all to summon the discipline, and the resolve, and the spirit of togetherness that will carry us through.” Qualities that have yet to be found in Johnson.
It had been much the same story in the Commons earlier in the day and you had to feel for Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, who must now be wondering why they had gone to so much trouble the previous day to explain just how critical the coronavirus rates of infection had become and that the threat had now risen back to level four. For after a few token nods to the gravity of the situation – “a stitch in time saves nine” – Boris Johnson used his commons statement to introduce a few minor tweaks to lockdown restrictions that rather suggested he wasn’t too bothered.
He wanted schools, colleges, universities and businesses to remain open – with the one proviso that all those he had previously threatened with the sack if they didn’t go back to work were now advised to work from home if at all possible. His biggest change was that pubs, restaurants and bars should now all close at 10pm – it has apparently been proved that the coronavirus is mainly a nocturnal creature and is most contagious after dark – though people were obviously free to go home in groups of six, get totally hammered and infect one another afterwards.
Like most Johnson statements it felt rather as if it had been written on the fly. By a committee of his left and right brain, with little synaptic contact between the two. There were few attempts to explain the situation carefully and carry the country with him. Just a load of off the cuff measures – mandatory face masks for shop and hospitality workers etc – and the threat of stricter measures to come if people didn’t comply or the restrictions proved ineffective.
This time he was really, really serious, he said, trying not to smirk. He understood that, unlike the Hun, we Brits were too freedom loving to comply with every law – nothing to do with the government’s mixed messaging obviously – but there were limits. There was nothing the public liked less than one law for the powerful and another for everyone else, so unless it involved driving up to Durham for eye tests it was time to rein in our libertarian instincts.
These restrictions could last for up to six months, Boris added. Which immediately raised eyebrows on both sides of the Commons. Because the prime minister’s idea of time rarely coincides with anyone else’s. It was Boris who had initially said the worst of the pandemic would be over in 12 weeks. It was Boris who had said we should be back to normal by Christmas. Now he was saying we were in for another half-year. Which probably meant that you could probably double it. Maybe he was thinking of Christmas 2021.
The pandemic has highlighted the stark difference between Boristime and Coronatime. Because he is unable to treat the country as grownups and can’t handle being the bearer of bad news, Boris invariably shortens any given Covid timeframe. Years become months, months become weeks. Meanwhile Coronatime has the last laugh of turning each of his strategies from months into weeks and weeks into days. You sometimes can’t even tell if one of his promises is going to last till the end of a sentence.
If Keir Starmer was put out that his powerful virtual conference speech had been all but forgotten by lunchtime he showed no sign of it. Rather he maintained his familiar tactic of broadly supporting the government’s new measures, before pointing out some of their more obvious shortcomings. Were there any signs that localised lockdowns were proving effective? What financial support was he planning to offer for jobs and businesses affected by the new restrictions? And whatever had happened to the world-beating test-and-trace system that everyone had agreed was essential to containing the virus?
Mostly, though, Boris’s concentration was focused on keeping his own backbenchers happy, as half of them want to avoid any further restrictions to keep the economy open and half have genuine concerns that the party will not be forgiven if the death toll in the second wave matches or exceeds that of the first one. And by and large he succeeded in treading an uneasy balance between being too bullish and too pragmatic. Up until the end, that is. Then his natural enthusiasm got the better of him. The ludicrous £100bn “Operation Moonshot” was still on course and with any luck everything would be fine within a matter of a few months.
We were back on Boristime. Though not for long, as moments after he had finished speaking Nicola Sturgeon made her own statement to the Scottish parliament. Where Boris had sounded somewhat rambling and, at times, contradictory, in his statement, Nicola was a model of clarity and precision. She has a clear grasp of her priorities and sticks to them. She had listened to the advice of Whitty and Vallance and concluded it was necessary to go a lot further than England. In Scotland the “rule of six” was a goner, and there would be no unnecessary socialising between families indoors for the foreseeable future.
With Northern Ireland having already reached a similar conclusion, that left Boris as something of an outlier. Already people were taking bets that his new restrictions would have to be updated within a week. In the battle between Boristime and Coronatime, there’s so far only ever been one winner.