Eviscerating and accurate - Marina Hyde on Johnson's leadership during this crisis.
Britain. A nation of shopfighters, presided over at a time of mortal peril by a newspaper columnist, who has for three decades moonlighted as his generation’s leading liar. Still, as the words clawed into the side of the plague pit probably once read, “We are where we are.”
But where, currently, is that? It is a place where, at 5pm every day, the disease-threatened populace is expected to take prophylactic advice from Boris Johnson. From Monday, most British parents will be home-schooling their children. Not Johnson, of course – I imagine he doesn’t want to break his own pledge on class sizes. The prime minister keeps saying that the forthcoming test to determine whether you have coronavirus will be “as simple as a pregnancy test”, spaffing his sole area of expertise rather early in what is likely to be a long campaign.
Actually, that’s unfair. His other area of expertise is disguising rather basic points with needlessly obscure language. Once this made him a highly overrated prose stylist; now it could make him accomplice to the death of your relatives and friends. “The key message,” Johnson key-messaged on Tuesday, is that people follow the advice “sedulously”. Ah, sedulously. Sedulously. The signal for 10 million hardworking families to draw down the leather-bound thesaurus from their shelves and browse synonyms for the word “twat”.
The government’s crisis communications strategy could not be going worse if it was being led by the last speaker of a dead language, with Typhoid Mary on bass. People are still clearly extremely confused by what the advice is. Never have bullet points been more called for, and you’d think someone as obsessed with the second world war as Johnson is would know that an effective Ministry of Information was inextricably linked to the success of the war effort. Unfortunately, as indicated, Johnson is basically just a columnist. I don’t want to spaff what we might euphemise as my own area of expertise too early, but trust me on this: he is hardwired to spin that shit out for 1150 words. How to put this in terms that even a wildly overeducated prime minister can understand? JUST TELL US THE INFORMATION. It’s a public safety briefing, not a fricking ring quest.
The government’s inability to clearly define essential terms means we are in a situation where “self-isolating” demonstrably means a range of things to different people. Same with “social distancing”. These urgently need simple and precise definition, and a comms blitz everywhere from social media to news bulletins to short TV ads.
Instead, Johnson prefers to chuck new soundbites on the pile. The current one is the pledge that “we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks”. If you missed this clip, don’t worry. My suspicion is that you’ll be seeing it hundreds of times more this year. It has a strong “Over by Christmas” vibe to it, and is the sort of thing you could imagine on the side of a bus.
There is something deeply unsettling to watching Johnson and Dominic Cummings’ Brexit media strategy be lightly repurposed for a deadly contagion. The prime minister is already crossing the streams, declaring repeatedly on Thursday: “I’m very confident we’ll get this thing done.” Mate … that’s your slogan for the other one? We’re about three days off him telling us we can take back control.
Yet control is once again looking somewhat tenuous. Huge amounts of this week have been dedicated to gaslighting the nation that, last week, no one in a position of power said “herd immunity” out loud. And yet, they did. Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings, high priest of the 20,000-word blog, can tell you everything about what the Manhattan Project taught us, but he seemingly can’t work out that if you let a “London will be imminently locked down” story go viral for 18 hours before you deny it, then people WILL physically fight over bogroll. Nurses coming off 48-hour shifts WILL cry in videos because they can’t buy anything in the shops. I guess Cummings is interested in behavioural science in the way I’m interested in Olympic figure skating. Which is to say, I like it, but I’m unbelievably, lethally shit at it.
Physically, meanwhile, Johnson is ageing slightly quicker than the guy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade who drinks from the wrong grail and goes from middle-aged to ancient to exploding skeleton in around six seconds. There seems to be some unholy symbiosis between him and Rishi Sunak, who appears to be growing younger with every appearance. Perhaps for every year that the prime minister gains, the chancellor loses one. In a fortnight, Sunak will require home-schooling, while Johnson will be over 70 and consequently allowed to self-shield from having to do his job.
Of course, we are not the only nation to be conducting an interesting social experiment to determine what happens if you elect a clinical narcissist to run a country which later turns out to be facing grave danger. At this stage, the US’s experiment appears to be going rather worse, and you certainly wouldn’t rule out Donald Trump judging November’s elections to be something that had better be suspended under the circumstances.
Even so, it has been quite something to watch Johnson’s boredom and terminal ironist’s smirk kick back in, live on air, as the week has progressed, even while people are asking him about the soon-to-break ventilator crisis in intensive care. “Operation Last Gasp” as Johnson reportedly called the need to address the equipment deficit in a conference call to manufacturers this week.
What can you say? If there were any kind of movie justice, the key component for the coronavirus vaccine would occur naturally only in Johnson’s brain stem. Alas, even in that eventuality, he’d decline to do the right thing for the greater good. Johnson has never at a single point suggested he got into this game for public service. His idea of heroic sacrifice is allowing someone else to raise his offspring.
That the music should stop when Boris Johnson of all people is prime minister is the darkest of cosmic ironies. We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies. It is the work of seconds to dredge up Johnson columns about radical population control, or Johnson buses about the NHS enjoying vast savings from the EU. Who knows which of these, if any, he ever really believed.
Time and again this week I have been reminded of that great line from last year’s Chernobyl drama series. “When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember it is even there. But it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”