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Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Last year, Boris Johnson avoided the Commons Liaison Committee no fewer than three times. His excuses ranged from being too close to summer recess, through an illegal prorogation, and finally being too busy with Brexit.
It was widely known within Whitehall that Dominic Cummings felt that his boss shouldn’t waste his time appearing before a gathering of senior MPs. On the same day that Johnson ducked the committee last September, Cummings actually told journalists: “You guys should get out of London.” Little did we realise that would turn out to be his personalised pandemic self-protection plan.
Fast forward to today and Cummings’ presence hovered over proceedings like a gas leak. At the end, the PM claimed he had “enjoyed” the session, despite the “difficult” questions. But he then added a novel excuse for why he couldn’t fulfill the convention of appearing twice in a parliamentary year. “The trouble is, it does take a huge amount of sherpa time, of preparation time,” he said. The remark was telling not so much for laying bare his dislike of preparation, but because it showed how much he relied on ‘sherpas’ or officials to do the prep for him.
Of course, Johnson was also keen to stress that he and his team would rather focus on tackling the coronavirus crisis than answering questions about it. But the Liaison Committee session featured some excellent questions from MPs on everything from testing to school inequalities to mothers struggling with childcare and even the economy. And for all the preparation of others, it often felt like the PM just hadn’t bothered to do his homework.
Since Keir Starmer became his prosecutor-in-chief at PMQs, Johnson’s unease with close questioning has become all too palpable (though we shouldn’t forget it was during a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that he blundered into suggesting Nazanin Zaghari-Radclliffe was a British spy). His bluster and obfuscation was once again in evidence as dismissed questions about Cummings’ “autobiography” and “exegesis” of his conduct.
The PM was happier trying to explain his new announcement of NHS Test and Trace’s launch on Thursday. That didn’t stop him from making the unforced error of describing the self-isolation at the heart of the plans as “captivity”. Given he was already struggling to defend Cummings’ elastic interpretation of ‘stay at home’, why compound the problem by making self-isolation sound like house arrest rather than an act of civic duty?
That latter phrase was again used by Matt Hancock later. And in what felt like an epic troll of the PM’s adviser, he emphasised why we should follow the test-and-trace rules. It was so epic it’s worth repeating in full: “Do it for your community. Do it too for the frontline workers, who’ve gone out every day and put themselves at risk to keep you and your family safe. And in return for following those instructions, you’ll have the knowledge that, when the call came, you did your bit at a time when it really mattered…when the whole country, who are desperate to see their families, were counting on you to do the right thing.”
There was some evidence today that people are starting to do the wrong thing, thanks to Cummings’ example. West Midlands police and crime commissioner David Jamieson said officers had seen rule breakers tell them “if it is OK for Cummings, it is OK for us”. But I do think the public will comply with the test and trace rules, not least because the system will be seen as the NHS, not the government, telling people what to do.
In fact, while some say that the Cummings affair means now is exactly the worst time to be launching a new system that has quarantine at its heart, one can argue that it is actually the best time politically. Why? Because we are not in the peak of the pandemic, rules have already been loosened and are due to loosen further, on a national level. The PM hinted today he could even relax the 2m rule to 1m, allowing more travel and more shopping. Hancock even talked about people getting their haircut again. If most people are allowed to see extended family again, the few forced to quarantine may get drowned out by the wider sense of relief.
Crucially, the test-and-trace scheme does not rely on huge numbers of people complying because its very nature is meant to deal with a situation when cases are low and flare-ups are rare and localised. Johnson was right to say only a “tiny, tiny minority” would have to suffer the hardship of a 14-day self-isolation. And with high public compliance generally, that means even a few refuseniks won’t ruin the whole thing.
There are still doubts about elements of the test-and-trace scheme, not least the sense its launch date is as arbitrary as the June 1 timetable for school reopening. NHS chiefs feared today that local councils have not been given enough time to engage with it and the NHS App is still not ready. Even the PM admitted tomorrow was just a first step, and the system would be “getting steadily better” to “become a truly world-beating” model. I.e it isn’t world-beating yet.
Johnson did issue a ‘sorry, not sorry’ apology about Cummings. He was “deeply sorry for all the pain and hurt and anxiety” caused by the lockdown, but there were no regrets over his own liaisons dangereuses with an aide who breaks the rules. Yet on the wider question of personal responsibility, he did say something very notable (and unusually well-prepared) about who was to blame for the UK’s huge death toll from Covid-19.
He told Jeremy Hunt: “I think the brutal reality is this country didn’t learn the lessons of Sars [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] or Mers [Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome] and we didn’t have a test operation ready to go on the scale that we needed.” That sounded right out of the Trump playbook of blaming your predecessors for your current crisis (Blair was in power during SARS and Cameron during MERS). It may even have been a dig at Hunt himself, who was health secretary after all for many years.
Johnson’s remarks on this were so detailed - talk of a lack of enzymes, kits, trackers - that it suggests he now thinks a public inquiry really is inevitable (Nicola Sturgeon confirmed today Scotland would have one) because he has already started mapping out the case for the defence. He may also be set to blame scientists around him who some believe stuck to groupthink about lockdown timings (Cummings hinted darkly at this on Monday). Yes, everybody’s fault but mine.
In some ways, it’s obvious the UK was unprepared for this pandemic and that stretches back years. But of course, Johnson can’t really escape the fact that the crisis happened on his watch. He had been PM for seven months when the corona hurricane hit landfall in Europe. More than anything, today’s dig at his predecessors showed that he and his No.10 team prefer political distancing to social distancing.
Can he distance himself again from the past decade of a rule by a Tory party and government of which he was a member? That trick worked in the last election, but it may not work now. The public may even think it is his ‘civic duty’ to finally accept responsibility.
Quote Of The Day
“I’m not certain, right now, that an inquiry into that matter is a very good use of official time. We’re working flat out on coronavirus.”
Boris Johnson on why he hasn’t ordered a civil service probe into Dominic Cummings’ conduct
Wednesday Cheat Sheet
The number of people who have died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus reached 37,460.
The number of Tory MPs calling for Dominic Cummings to step down grew to 40 after the PM’s Liaison Committee hearing.
Matt Hancock said the NHS Test and Trace scheme would go live at 9am on Thursday. He also announced that all ages - including children under five years old - will now be eligible for coronavirus tests.
Emily Maitlis was replaced as host of Wednesday night’s episode of Newsnight after BBC bosses reprimanded her over a monologue in which she attacked the government’s handling of Cummings’ lockdown trip to Durham.
McDonald’s announced it will reopen 975 more UK branches for drive-thru customers next week.
The number of deaths to Covid-19 in the US went past the 100,000 mark.
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