How damaging will Boris Johnson’s alleged quotes on Covid-19 be?

We already know the PM was cavalier about a second wave. Whether or not the quotes are proved, they will confirm that perception.

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Boris Johnson finds himself publicly at odds with the heavyweights of British journalism this morning. The Prime Minister has denied, on the record and on camera, saying that he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third lockdown, after the allegation was reported by the Daily Mail yesterday. But the BBC and ITV’s political editors, along with the Guardian and Politico, have corroborated the allegations, with the BBC confident enough to report it as fact. 

It throws into stark relief something that has been plain the entire time: that Johnson took a cavalier attitude towards the second wave of Covid-19, fearing the economic consequences of another lockdown. You don’t need a leaked quote to tell you that, or a public inquiry; you only need to look at how the government’s policy played out last year, at everything the Prime Minister said publicly on the matter, and at what the consequences were. That is the substance of a report in the Times this morning, which alleges Johnson said last September that he would rather let coronavirus “rip” than lock down again. These shocking, memorable quotes give a shape and face to a vague concern many had over the Prime Minister’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and will resonate whether or not they prove to be true.

[see also: “It’s hardly a diplomatic secret that Boris Johnson is a liar”: Sylvie Bermann on life as an envoy]

The second damaging aspect to this story is the very public stand-off over Johnson’s word. There’s a case to be made that it doesn't much matter: public perception of Johnson as a liar is “baked in”, candid Conservative MPs and advisers will tell you, somewhat exemplified by the lack of cut-through that Jennifer Arcuri’s allegations of an affair with Johnson, plus an alleged undeclared conflict of interest, had last month. But the strange thing about Johnson is that he does, very often, stand up and say things that don’t seem quite right or that are disputed, and there’s no telling which of these statements will attract attention or backlash. This one certainly has. 

When I was researching a piece last year on the perplexing number of seemingly incorrect statements he made at PMQs, the view of many Labour and Conservative figures was that most of these errors couldn’t possibly be deliberate. It made no sense, they said, to lie on the record about something that could easily be disproven. That is the case for the defence: after firmly denying the allegations against him, why would Johnson risk lying if they could be proved true?

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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