As Conservative party conference gets underway online, Boris Johnson used an appearance on the Andrew Marr show to warn of the difficult months ahead. With over ten million people currently under local lockdown restrictions, the Prime Minister said that while he is aware people are 'furious' with his government, things are not about to get better. Johnson said it was going to be a bumpy few months – which could extend well beyond Christmas:
'It’s possible that we will make significant progress on the vaccine this year. I went to see the scientists at AstraZeneca in Oxford and those teams and they seem to be doing fantastically well. But I don’t want to get people’s hopes up on the vaccine unnecessarily because I think there is a chance but it is not certain.'
In this current period, Johnson urged people to 'behave fearlessly but with common sense' – in what appeared to be a watered down version of the Chancellor's message that people should live without fear.
Johnson also spoke of his own frustrations with the government response to the pandemic. While he said he was responsible for the general handling, he admitted that the test and trace programme is not functioning properly. He said that there was work to do on the scheme:
'Yes, it's not perfect but it has made a huge difference to our ability to see where the virus is and where it is spreading, in which groups it is most prevalent and it is helping us a huge amount.'
With Johnson's popularity also sliding among Tory backbenchers, he attempted to explain why his approach to the pandemic had surprised some of his long time supporters. Declaring himself 'a freedom loving Tory', he insisted he took no pleasure in imposing restrictions but had no other choice:
'I think the reality is this is a Government that is facing an unprecedented crisis and I think if people wanted me to approach it with the sort of buoyancy and elan and the qualities I usually bring to things, I think people would think that was totally inappropriate.'
Johnson also told Marr that his priority is saving lives:
'I don’t want to have to impose measures like this, are you crazy? This is the last thing we want to do. But I also have to save life. And that’s our priority. And I also think, by the way, that’s the priority of the British people and I think they will want to see their Government continue to work, continuing to fight the virus and that’s what we’re doing.'
The first Conservative party conference since Johnson won a majority of 80 ought to have been a moment of celebration for the party. Instead, coronavirus has changed the political landscape and the bulk of Johnson's interview was spent talking about the virus rather than Johnson's domestic agenda or even Brexit (where he said there is a deal to be done). As long as people are living under mass restrictions, it will be hard for Johnson to talk about much else.