To be fair, it sounds like exactly the sort of thing Boris Johnson would say. Having been outnumbered and out-argued by senior ministers and medical advisers on the need for a second lockdown last October, it’s perfectly plausible he came away from the Cabinet Room and headed to his office in a foul mood.
“No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands!’” the Daily Mail reports he said. The picture is of a liberty-loving PM boiling over with frustration as he caved to the pressure. ITV’s Robert Peston has two other sources for the remark, which was allegedly uttered while the door to Johnson’s office was open to both the Cabinet Room and his outer office.
The BBC has a slightly different form of words, that the PM had said “bodies could pile high” and he would still be opposed to yet another lockdown. The main point however is that the Corporation’s news bulletins led with the claim – that “he would rather let thousands of bodies pile high in the streets than have another lockdown” – and thus ensured millions knew about it.
Perhaps just as damaging was that Johnson’s denial (in yet another ‘clip’ for broadcasters rather than a proper press conference) sounded pretty unemphatic. Asked directly if he’d made the bodies remark he replied: “No, er, but, er, again, I think the important thing that people want us to, er, get on and do as a government is to make sure the lockdowns work.” You always know when something’s up when his ‘er-ometer’ rockets. There was even a flicker of a smile. He certainly didn’t seem as furious as he was last October.
As it happens, there are three people who believe Johnson uttered the bodies phrase, and it’s perfectly possible one of them may one day go public.
Instead, it was Michael Gove who did the Mr Angry thing in the Commons later, when challenged by the SNP and Labour MPs. “This is a prime minister who was in a hospital himself, in intensive care,” he said. “The idea that he would say any such thing, I find incredible. I was in that room, I never heard of language of that kind.”
Yet Gove’s non-denial denial suffered from several problems. First, just because he finds it “incredible” to use such language doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Second, Johnson is alleged to have uttered the words in his office, not the Cabinet Room with Gove. Third, Gove failed to answer Wes Streeting’s question: prior to coming to the Commons did he receive assurances from the PM that he did not use those words? Fourth, Gove said the PM did eventually order a third lockdown in January, but that’s not incompatible with an outburst about the idea in October.
Indeed, one of the most damaging bits of the Mail’s jaw-dropping exclusive was the reason for Johnson’s reluctance to have any more lockdowns. “He kept saying ‘there’s no evidence they even work’...and ended up sitting in sullen silence as the others told him he had no choice,” its source said.
That perhaps explains exactly why the PM dithered in December, when faced with the new variant ripping through communities in London and the South East. His decision to impose a Tier 4 set of curbs only in the south may well have meant that deaths in the north and midlands were much higher than they need have been in January and February. The hackneyed view of Dominic Cummings is he “knows where the bodies are buried” in Whitehall. That now sounds singularly sick given the many families bereaved across the country this winter.
The looming public inquiry will try and quantify the fatal cost of that delay and if it is indeed not just thousands but tens of thousands, Johnson’s premiership ought to be over. Of course, what matters most is not what he said, but what he did. Yet the two are often related: if he genuinely believed lockdowns didn’t work, or felt their downsides outweighed their upsides, that may well have influenced his deadly delay over Christmas.
His biographer Andrew Gimson may have been more honest than Gove, when he said it was possible the PM had used the “tasteless” phrase, as part of his habit of trying to “talk as a man in the pub would”. It’s even plausible that Johnson uses such language so casually he’s even forgotten he said it. As it happens, there are three people who believe Johnson uttered the bodies phrase, and it’s perfectly possible one of them may one day go public.
While the PM’s callous language is obviously damaging, it’s his personal inability to plan that ought to worry us most. He had a detailed exit route out of lockdown last summer, yet failed to draft a similarly clear re-entry roadmap back into national lockdown should things turn worse.
Things did turn worse last October. And worse still in December. As the NHS’s vaccine rollout proves, the whole point of having a coherent strategic plan is it mitigates against both panic and delays. Sadly, Johnson’s chequered pandemic record has plenty of both. And no matter how hard he tries, he can’t bury the sheer number of deaths.