Alex Massie

Does anyone doubt Boris’s leaked ‘bodies’ comment?

Does anyone doubt Boris's leaked 'bodies' comment?
Text settings

Of course Boris Johnson raged, King Lear-like, that he was prepared to 'let the bodies pile high in their thousands' if the alternative was subjecting the country to a third lockdown more dispiriting than either of its dreary, even grim, predecessors. I say ‘of course he said it’ not just because at least three different sources have confirmed to at least three different reporters that the Prime Minister did say it but also, and significantly, because it would be so wholly in character for the Prime Minister to have said it. If it sounds like the sort of thing he would say, that is largely because it is the sort of thing he would say.

Nor have his denials been convincing. His quick 'no' before pivoting to more important things (which no-one currently thinks more important) had more than a tinge of a child caught red-handed who knows he must put up a show of innocence while understanding this is all it is: a required show that persuades nobody.

For, come on, have the Prime Minister’s friends not spent a year telling us how much he hates restricting the peoples’ liberties, even in a time of crisis? Has he not himself often told us how it is his reluctant, heavy-hearted duty to inform the British people that fresh restrictions or new extensions to those restrictions are unavoidable? Has he not consistently tilted towards an imprudent optimism subsequently counterfeited by experience time and time again? Has he not seemed a frustrated prime minister, for whatever he wanted to be — or even do — as prime minister, it certainly was not any of this. Has he not always been who he is and has anyone ever thought he thinks that something worth hiding?

Even Johnson’s supporters have never bothered claiming he’d be much of a prime minister. Sure, people had concerns about his record, his capacity for paying attention to detail, his relationship to the truth, his judgement and much else besides. Nevertheless, the important thing to remember was that he would surround himself with good people to whom he would contract out much of the tedious business of being prime minister.

But it doesn’t work like that. The decisions that reach the prime minister’s desk — and there are many of these — are decisions that cannot be taken lower down the chain of command. The prime minister is a deciding position ill-suited to prevaricators or those with a keen requirement to be loved.

This is of little import when the big question is whether to file tomorrow’s column really late or merely late (though, characteristically, with no care for how this might inconvenience other people) but it begins to become a problem when you are, notionally at least, charged with running the country.

It has long been apparent that while Johnson might just have coped with being prime minister during a period of prolonged and cheerful sunshine he is utterly unsuited to the political weather typically found in these isles. His own MPs and ministers know this and so do his closest aides.

The details of who leaked what and when are of almost zero significance save on two counts. First, the so-called 'chatty rat' performed a significant public service by bouncing the PM into announcing a second lockdown before he wished to do so. This rat saved lives. Second, and revealingly, the leak tells us that at least some of those closest to Johnson understands he is not capable of being a high-functioning prime minister. If he were, no leak would have been required. If he were capable he would not be bounceable; if he were capable he would not need to be bounced. Either way, the same result is evident: a prime minister too weak to set his own course.

This drift and an accompanying reluctance to stare reality in the face without flinching must account for some portion of the past year’s failures and horrors. Any prime minister would have struggled, just as leaders elsewhere have also been tested to or beyond their limits, but most others would at least have put on a better show. They would have wanted to take decisions, not search for ways in which they might be avoided.

For all his brilliance as an entertainer, the Prime Minister is unsound and lacking bottom. It seems noteworthy that the shining success of the vaccine procurement programme was effectively contracted out to Kate Bingham’s taskforce. It scarcely bears thinking how different the public mood might be were it not for Bingham’s triumph. The vaccination roll-out programme has proceeded more or less identically in England, Scotland and Wales under the auspices of Conservative, SNP, and Labour ministers respectively. This shared success suggests the programme must be more or less idiot-proof and it would be prudent for politicians anywhere to avoid claiming too much credit for it.

As ever, patterns of behaviour emerge in which the essential truth of different scandals is corroborated by their shared details. The public may not much care about Westminster leak inquiries and in a time of pandemic they can forgive procurement scandals that at other times would stink of unforgivable corruption. But they also know, I think, that a prime minister soliciting donations to pay for the refurbishment of his publicly-provided accommodation is the kind of thing that isn’t really on. To put it another way, it is impossible to imagine Theresa May or Gordon Brown asking for such favours.

Of course such a ploy would be unethical and perhaps, though less importantly, illegal too. Of course the rules are supposed to prohibit such a carry on. But, and here we hit upon the nub of the issue, in the Johnsonian world rules are both for other people and intolerable. A large part of Johnson’s case for Brexit — a large part, indeed, of his whole career and worldview — was based on the idea many, or even most, EU regulations were a load of suffocating old nonsense. Rules constrain and Boris no like being constrained. Boris made sad by standards. There is a childishness to this and one day we may reflect it would have been wiser to elect an adult rather than a child. (Or, to be strictly fair, to have had an adult to choose from at the most recent general election.)

In any case, everything is a game and a jolly. So of course Jennifer Arcuri should receive unwarranted access to trade shows and the like as a result of her intimate connection with the then-mayor. For, sure, doesn’t everyone know these things are largely a pointless waste of time anyway? As they can do little good, no harm can come from treating them with a certain contempt. Nothing matters and nothing means very much and a few hundred thousand pounds of public money spunked to keep his mistress happy is no big deal.

In like fashion, because it’s all a game or a jape in which the performance matters more than its meaning no blame can be attached to a prime minister whose core instincts drive him towards anything that reveals the essential ridiculousness of life. Again, this is a fine — and even worthy! — pursuit for a columnist but one could think it unbecoming of a prime minister. Boris can’t quite appoint his horse consul to make a point but if he could he’d be tempted to. (Then again, Gavin Williamson is in the cabinet.)

Just as it would be unreasonable to be upset by favours extended to his mistress, so it would plainly be silly to make a big deal about a new sofa and some nicer wallpaper in his Downing Street flat. Someone has to pay for these and if someone is prepared to stump up the cash then more fool them. They would be mistaken if they thought this bought them anything special; their cash is useful, that’s all. Johnson will make a mug even of those who think they’re helping him. For that is part of the game too.

It all adds up, however. Not, perhaps, in ways to make a difference this year or even next but sooner or later it calcifies notions previously only suspected. This country is a forgiving place and it has shown itself prepared to forgive its government a lot this past year but there will come a time when a reckoning will have to be made. When that happens — and it will — the verdict is unlikely to be a cheerful one.

So of course he said it and while that does not require anyone to believe he meant it in a literal sense — for this is Boris Johnson, remember — it remains necessary to remember that he said it and that it is not unreasonable to judge him for saying it too. Leadership is a question of character and power reveals character with neither favour nor pity.