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6 December 2023

The Tories are lucky to be rid of Boris Johnson

At the Covid Inquiry, the former PM appeared muddled, aggressive and, by the end, crushed.

By Rachel Cunliffe

In the days leading up to Boris Johnson’s appearance before the Covid Inquiry, his team briefed some journalists that the former prime minister had been preparing for over a year and had been “ensconced” with his legal advisers for ten days.

After the illuminating testimony of Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance, Helen MacNamara, Matt Hancock and of course Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s team must have known what to expect. Questions on how long it took for the government to take the threat of Covid seriously, on the toxic culture within Downing Street, the dysfunctional decision-making process, the degree to which Johnson himself understood and made an effort to keep up with the science, and what happened to all the messages from January to July 2020 mysteriously not found on his phone.

Given how predictable these lines of questioning by the interminably slick Hugo Keith KC, the counsel to the inquiry, were, it is baffling – or, to use a term from Vallance’s notebook, bamboozling – quite how unprepared Johnson was when the big day finally arrived.

For a decade and a half, Boris Johnson has loomed larger than life on the stage of British politics. He’s been branded Teflon, a titan, a great survivor. He’s famous for being one of Westminster’s great communicators, Churchillian and Ciceronian in scope and style, quick on his feet and with a keen eye for what will resonate with the British public.

None of this was on display today. In the hearing room in Paddington which has become drably familiar, Johnson appeared diminished. His trademark scruffiness – ruffled shirt, unruly hair – did not exude the boyish energy it did when he was rocketing up the political ladder. He looked merely disorganised and out of his depth, armed only with weak excuses of the “dog ate my WhatsApp messages” variety.

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[See also: In 2024, Labour must offer hope]

Those looking for news lines will be disappointed. We learnt little today that we did not already know or suspect – either from the testimony so far or from our recollections at the time. Johnson acknowledged that he “should have twigged” how serious Covid would be earlier, but was quick to qualify this with repeated claims that he was getting conflicting and unclear advice, including from Sage, the government’s scientific advisers. He said that in retrospect he probably shouldn’t have shaken hands with patients in hospital in early March 2020. He admitted to being “bewildered” by a graph he was shown charting the potential rise in infections.

The most devastating revelation was over Johnson’s attitude to Long Covid. The former PM tried to insist that his view had evolved with the scientific consensus at the time, and rebutted the assertion that he didn’t take the issue seriously. With a withering look, Keith directed him to notes he had scrawled on a briefing document on Long Covid in October 2020: “bollocks” and “this is Gulf War syndrome stuff”. Johnson looked down sheepishly, but it didn’t last.

For the crowds of demonstrators outside, braving near-zero temperatures once again to make heard their fury at the Covid death toll of 230,000 (or, for the counterprotesters, their scepticism of lockdown and vaccines), today is unlikely to have offered much in the way of closure. If there is something explosive in Keith’s dossier, a way to catch Johnson out in a hitherto unexposed lie or uncover another hidden scandal, we will have to wait until tomorrow to see it. The session ended with a cliff-hanger: a spicy debate about whether Johnson had kept Hancock in place as health secretary as a “sacrifice” for the inquiry. Stay tuned.

Watch: What does the Covid enquiry mean for the Tories? The New Statesman podcast team give their view.

What we saw today was enlightening in a different way. This was the first public performance from Johnson since he resigned as an MP in June following the damning conclusion of the Privileges Committee inquiry into partygate. (There was no mention of Downing Street parties or other lockdown breaches in today’s session.) As the Tories have sunk in the polls, a downward trend seemingly immune to Rishi Sunak’s many “resets”, there have been whispers of seller’s remorse – the suggestion that removing Johnson as PM was where it all started to go wrong. Johnson surely didn’t set out to refute such wishful thinking today, but that was the effect.

The former prime minister fidgeted. He twitched. He swivelled on his chair, looked at his shoes, sighed and huffed. He may have not actually rolled his eyes, but overall his disposition was that of an impatient schoolboy being kept in over lunch for a transgression he doesn’t believe is serious. Worse, for a man known for his rhetorical flourishes, he waffled. Answers about herd immunity, balancing the trade-offs of lockdown and taking the advice of Sage degenerated into incoherence.

At points, there were flashes of the Oxford Union debates where Johnson honed his oratorical skills. He tried to catch Keith out – over whether he had directly been warned about the toxic atmosphere inflicted by Cummings – and was coolly corrected. He needled the KC about the suggestion he put his feet up at Chevening over the February 2020 half term, and was slapped down. He interrupted, and flushed ever pinker when talking over Keith failed to reassert his authority.

There was, of course, little in the way of contrition or self-reflection. Though Johnson began with an apology to Covid victims and their families, when Keith offered him the chance to outline any mistakes he had made, he drew a blank. He blamed his advisers wherever possible, while simultaneously insisting there was nothing any other leader could have done differently. Buzzwords – protect the NHS, follow the science, vaccines! – were inserted seemingly at random. Johnson resembled a flustered cook who, on realising they’ve added too much salt, chucks in every other spice in the cupboard out of desperation to try to salvage the dish.

It was sad – tragic almost – to see someone once so powerful perform so poorly. Whatever coaching Johnson’s team offered, none of it seems to have stuck. This was not Cincinnatus waiting to be called back to high office from his plough. There wasn’t even much in the way of bluster and bombast. Johnson came across by turns muddled, aggressive, out of touch and, by the end, crushed. As day one ended, the biggest question wasn’t about R numbers or lockdowns. It was: how on earth was this man prime minister at all?

[See also: Why ministers like Michael Gove are so rare]

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