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Boris Johnson’s irresponsible government is rapidly losing authority

The Prime Minister’s misleading address to the nation was the culmination of a week of bungling.   

By Martin Fletcher

What is it about Boris Johnson and the truth? He fabricated quotes as a trainee journalist, lied about Brussels as the Telegraph’s correspondent there, lied about his marital affairs and lied to secure victory in the Brexit referendum. He produced yet another whopper in Sunday night’s address to the nation.

“I have consulted across the political spectrum, across all four nations of the UK,” he declared as he announced the first loosening of the coronavirus tourniquet. “And though different parts of the country are experiencing the pandemic at different rates, and though it is right to be flexible in our response, I believe that as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom – Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland – there is a strong resolve to defeat this together. And today a general consensus on what we could do.”

Those “consultations” came as news to irate members of his own “Potemkin” cabinet who were presented with a fait accompli at their Sunday morning meeting – Johnson’s address having already been recorded; to trade union leaders, who said his call for those who could to return to work was a “recipe for chaos”; and to the Police Federation, which said Johnson’s ambiguous new rules were “grossly unfair” on those charged with enforcing them.

Above all, Johnson’s “consultations” on his switch from “Stay Home” to “Stay Alert” came as shocking news to leaders of the UK’s devolved governments, who said they first learnt of the change in Sunday’s papers and believe it is dangerously premature.

Pause and consider the implications of that. At a time of national emergency, with thousands of lives at stake and people hungry for authoritative guidance, the Prime Minister knowingly dispensed advice to viewers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that contradicted what Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford and Arlene Foster were telling them. It is hard to imagine any other recent prime minister acting so irresponsibly – or, for that matter, handing such a gift to the separatists.

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The address was the culmination of a week of bungling. There were the wildly optimistic briefings to last Thursday’s papers (the Daily Mail’s front page “Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons” metamorphosed without any apparent irony this morning into “Boris keeps handbrake on”, the Sun’s from “Happy Monday!” to “Ready, steady, slow”). 

There was the jettisoning of “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” in favour of the widely derided “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives”. It is a slogan so vague that Johnson had to tweet a clarification of what it meant on Sunday. The Tory sloganeers who gave us “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done” seem to be losing their touch – and to have forgotten their own leader’s supreme lack of alertness to the looming pandemic throughout February.

There was also the curious decision to have Robert Jenrick defending the new slogan on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show. The Housing Secretary was so “alert” to the dangers of coronavirus that he visited his parents and second home during the lockdown last month.

The root cause of this mess is not hard to divine. Caught between those cabinet hawks and party donors who want to reopen the economy as fast as possible, and the doves who stress the need to save lives, Johnson has produced a muddled compromise that has pleased neither camp. For all his Churchillian pretensions, he has sought the path of least resistance.

Johnson’s address contained no admission of fault, and much of his usual bluster and bombast. He boasted of averting “a catastrophe in which the reasonable worst-case scenario was half-a-million fatalities”, but failed to acknowledge that the UK has suffered the world’s second-highest death toll (31,855). 

He promised “a world-beating system for testing potential victims, and for tracing their contacts so that, all told, we are testing literally hundreds of thousands of people every day” but failed to mention that Matt Hancock’s 100,000 tests-a-day target has been achieved just once – and even then through statistical subterfuge. Just hours before the Prime Minister spoke, David Spiegelhalter, the Cambridge statistician, accused the government of an “extraordinary” failure to prioritise testing, and called its use of statistics “not trustworthy”.

Johnson has come far by avoiding scrutiny. He won December’s general election through a vacuous campaign of gimmicky photo-ops, and by studiously avoiding tough interviewers such as Andrew Neil. As Politico’s London Playbook points out, before today he had made not a single statement to the House of Commons on the coronavirus pandemic, and had given just one press conference since 25 March. He will answer questions from the public tonight, but only pre-recorded ones.

That is starting to change. Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, will subject him to far tougher interrogations than Jeremy Corbyn ever did. There are signs of restiveness within his cabinet. The press is no longer quite as sycophantic – the Daily Telegraph, long Johnson’s mouthpiece, splashed on a Starmer op-ed last Friday (“We owe it to VE Day generation to protect them from virus in care homes”) and ran a piece by Sturgeon criticising Johnson’s “Stay Alert” slogan this morning.

Even the public seems to be paying the Prime Minister less heed, less respect. In many ways his Sunday address was merely an acknowledgement of what is already happening on the ground. Traffic is increasing. The streets are busier. People have been sunbathing and taking unlimited exercise. Construction workers are back building. Friends are discreetly meeting friends, and grandparents are surreptitiously seeing their grandchildren. With or without Johnson’s approval, and for better or worse, the lockdown was easing anyway.