Downing Street is facing questions over whether the Prime Minister will show up for Wednesday’s Budget statement in the House of Commons wearing a face mask. In theory, there is no excuse for him not to.
Indeed, there is a good case for saying all MPs should cover up (unless they’re exempt), according to the government’s own guidance, when meeting in a crowded space, and there are few rooms more likely to be packed than the Commons chamber on Budget day.
Yet Johnson’s spokesperson declined to say what the premier will do when asked by journalists today. It is a matter for “individuals to decide” depending on their “circumstances”, and “I’m not going to pre-judge that”, the spokesperson said.
It’s an awkward question for No 10 and one that has already divided the cabinet. Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, immediately answered in the affirmative when he was asked yesterday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if he would be wearing a face covering on the front bench when Rishi Sunak delivers the Budget. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, is firmly flying the flag for those Tories who are sceptical about pandemic restrictions, saying masks aren’t necessary in the Commons.
The truth is, wearing a mask may send the right message to the public in relation to government guidelines. It might also help ministers avoid charges of setting a bad example. But it may not be politically necessary for Johnson himself, who is to some extent already immunised against charges of hypocrisy.
During the same briefing, for lobby journalists at Westminster, Johnson’s spokesperson was asked what steps the Prime Minister is taking in his own life to go green, with the Cop26 climate summit just a few days away. Again, the spokesperson had no examples to hand, instead offering a line about how much Johnson wished he could get on his bike and cycle more often than he’s currently allowed now that he is running the country.
There is an understandable media (and public) fascination with politicians who are susceptible to the charge of hypocrisy. It’s often deadly for politicians. Matt Hancock clung on for a day as health secretary but was soon out after being caught on CCTV flouting social distancing rules (as kissing is now known) with an aide in his ministerial office. Dominic Cummings became a national villain last year when he tried to explain (partially, it now seems) his justification for driving 260 miles to Durham while the rest of the country was ordered to stay home during the first lockdown.
But do the same rules apply to Johnson? He is a man who makes jokes about his own complicated family life (including how many children he has), gets away with past comments that many regard as racist, and remains ahead in the polls, despite putting up taxes and presiding over one of the world’s worst pandemic death tolls.
In truth, one of the things the public likes about Johnson is his willingness to behave as if normal rules don’t apply to him, and voters seem to understand that this means he can’t really be held up as a hypocrite for breaking them.
Even so, wearing a mask might ultimately be a popular move for the Prime Minister. Eight out of ten English voters would support bringing back mask-wearing in shops and on trains and buses, according to YouGov. There are likely to be tougher tests to come.