16/12/2020 22:23 GMT | Updated 17/12/2020 08:37 GMT

How Boris Johnson Still Wants To Have His (Christmas) Cake And Eat It

Mixed messaging may not be too late to sort out, as long as rules are clear from now on.

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For one awful moment I actually thought he was going to croon. He had already taunted Keir Starmer in PMQs with a Mariah Carey song (“All I want for Christmas is a view!”) Then, in his No.10 press conference, Boris Johnson channelled his inner Michael Bublé, riffing on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” to get across his new message on Covid curbs this festive season.

Replacing “merry” with “very”, the PM showed once again that he can’t resist falling back on his usual repertoire, namely making lame gags despite the seriousness of the subject matter. His previous attempt at a similar Christmas hit – ”’Tis The Season To Be Jolly Careful” – had bombed in the charts, but he was clearly undaunted.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson showed he still wants to have his Christmas cake and eat it. Terrified of a public backlash (or at least a newspaper backlash, something else entirely) at the prospect of new laws and regulations, he kept saying “We don’t want to ban Christmas, to cancel it...” Of course, tightening the rules would not mean banning Christmas, merely reducing its scope. Which, it turned out, is exactly what his new guidance entailed.

While the PM protested that everything was ultimately down to individual responsibility, it rapidly became clear that he was changing the guidance significantly. Try not to see any elderly relatives until after they have been vaccinated. Isolate five days before you see anyone new at Christmas. Avoid the Boxing Day sales. Don’t travel unless absolutely necessary. This was a U-turn that dare not speak its name.

When the actual updated joint England-Scotland-Wales-Northern Ireland guidance was published, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality could not have been starker. Forget all that talk of three households mixing and instead read this: “The safest way to spend this Christmas is with your own household or your existing support bubble in your own home – and we strongly recommend that this is what you do if at all possible.”

It was left to Wales’ Mark Drakeford and Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon to actually say that publicly, rather than leave it to the small print. And that’s really the problem in England: the mixed and messy messaging that has been allowed by the PM to run riot ever since he made his original announcement last month. Turns out the ‘Covid Winter Plan’ is as changeable as Rishi Sunak’s multiple personality ‘Winter Economy Plan’.‌

Among the lamest reasons given by the PM for not changing the law (but changing the guidance) was the sheer inconvenience of people having to amend their holiday plans. There are two obvious objections to that. First, he should have got his own plans right first time, Secondly, he had no qualms about the inconvenience of tearing up summer holiday plans for millions with a few hours’ notice, so what’s different about winter holiday plans?

The most striking thing today was Chris Whitty’s demeanour and his sheer frustration that he was even in this position, with soaring cases already posing a threat to the NHS at its most vulnerable time of the year in January. When he said “this is not a moment to relax at all – quite the reverse”, the whole Christmas strategy was laid bare. Johnson is indeed relaxing things when many health professionals think he should be tightening them or at least not letting up.

Of course, the key thing now is that the public are actually clear on what the public health message is. Whitty was right that just because a motorway has a 70mph limit, we don’t whizz down it when it’s covered with black ice. He could have added that many Brits don’t smoke even though smoking is legal. If there’s a proper public information campaign to ram home the advice on keeping Christmas “small”, the message could still land even at this late stage.

We should all cross our fingers that the counterbalancing impact of closed workplaces and closed schools will bring down the R number, even as the extra household mixing will push it in the other direction. If people do take a minimalist approach (and the closure of pubs and restaurants for 60% of the population in Tier 3 may help), the NHS could be spared the worst.

What would also help (as the Cummings episode proved) is seeing the PM practice what he preaches. His own Christmas plans are apparently not yet sorted, his press secretary Allegra Stratton told us on Wednesday. Given the Brexit uncertainty that’s perhaps no surprise. But will the PM now commit to not travelling to his country mansion of Chequers, given it is in Tier 2, he lives in Tier 3 and Christmas should be “local”?

One Whitehall source tells me that Johnson does not plan to take a ministerial red box with him during the Christmas break. That suggests he is indeed planning to get away somewhere, and without the bother of official work. I know that sounds jaw-dropping, but it would fit with a man who spent the early pandemic in his other country pad of Chevening.

Maybe a new plan is needed: a small family Christmas in No.10, broken only by a surprise visit doing voluntary in work a London hospital and a London care home?