The Death of Stalin is the story of the chaos that ensues when a leader through whom all decisions must flow is incapacitated. Those contending to replace him are vicious, weak, or both. Meanwhile, the country contends with shortages and empty shelves; major religious festivals are banned by the government; ministers panic about quite how many people are trying to pack themselves on to already overcrowded trains. Some genius somewhere decided to show this 2017 film on Sunday night on BBC Two.
The evening before, Boris Johnson had popped up on the other channel, to announce he was cancelling Christmas. If you looked at the statistics showing how rapidly Covid-19 infections had been rising, especially in London and the south east, the biggest mystery was not why the Prime Minister felt it necessary to tell people not to travel or mix household bubbles during the festive season, but why he had pretended for so long that the festivities would go ahead as planned.
At any rate, it meant that Johnson – a man whose defining political ideology is pig-headed optimism in the face of all the facts; who had begun 2020 by tweeting out an inane photograph of his two thumbs up with the caption, “This is going to be a fantastic year for Britain” – had become the first prime minister to literally cancel Christmas. It was as if Theresa May had been forced to pass a bill changing our national language to French. Meanwhile, the soft drinks company Schweppes has begun promoting its wares with the tagline “Longer-lasting bubbles”, and three days after hearing this slogan, I still can’t decide if this is an act of utter genius or the biggest fizzy drinks-based cock-up since the launch of New Coke.
(While I’m doing one sentence jokes that I haven’t worked out how to properly integrate into the body of the piece: has anyone else noticed if you painted Johnson green he’d be a dead ringer for the Grinch? Someone should try it, we could all do with cheering up.)
As with Neville Chamberlain’s radio address to the nation in September 1939, the announcement that Christmas was cancelled was a lot less depressing than everything else that followed. Firstly, the news on 19 December that the capital and much of its hinterland would be entering the new-fangled tier four at midnight, after which, officially, nobody would be allowed to leave, meant that thousands of people attempted to leave with immediate effect, and every train out of London immediately took on the role of the last helicopter out of Saigon.
This would have been entirely unforeseeable for anyone who has never, at any point, interacted with another human being, but entirely predictable for everybody else. Without laying claim to scientific or technical knowledge I don’t have, it is also hard to reconcile this mass exodus with the government’s claim that its strategy was the best way to ensure that the new, more transmissible strain of coronavirus would stay firmly within the boundaries of the Home Counties.
The new strain (are we going to keep up tradition by calling it Covid-20, just in time for the arrival of 2021?) also led to the involuntary closing of the UK’s borders, more than a week before the country was due to tumble out of the European single market without a deal. Whether this was another General Melchett-style plan to wrongfoot the enemy by blowing oneself up when it is least expected is to me, at time of writing, unclear.
What is clear is that the queues of lorries trying to get on to ships at Dover have already attained a length and grandeur that most experts hadn’t expected until some time in early January, and that sooner or later this is going to be felt on supermarket shelves. It is also clear that the prime minister is understating the number of lorries in said queue by several hundred – which, since lorries are fairly conspicuous and easy to count, feels like quite an odd claim to make. It comes to something when the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – a branch of Foxtons in human form, a man who first came to public attention when he got caught pretending to be other people on the internet – is one of the more reassuring faces at a government press conference.
Throughout it all, I keep wondering one thing: why doesn’t sunny Boris try to give us all some hope? Why not promise that, some time in the future, when the vaccination programme has reached a certain point, perhaps, we will get two back-to-back bank holidays to celebrate our survival of this national crisis?
Perhaps the Prime Minister doesn’t want to make a promise he’s not sure he can keep. Perhaps he thinks it’s unfair to schedule a back-up Christmas that would inevitably exclude NHS workers, retail staff and other large sections of the workforce.
Or perhaps the moon is made of blue cheese. There is a more obvious explanation: Boris Johnson loves to exude optimism. But the idea of doing something that might help people? That has never occurred to him. It’ll all be over by Christmas, they said. But they never said by Christmas of which year.