The Labour benches had already long since stopped cheering on Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, but now the Tories have also fallen silent. This is politics in the time of coronavirus. No braying. No waving of order papers. No wild acclaim for the repetition of mindless soundbites. The silence of MPs breaking the habit of a lifetime and trying to treat one another with respect and leading by example.
Not that there were many MPs. For what is normally a guaranteed full house, there were barely 100 members in the chamber: all of whom were trying to maintain a safe distance from one another. And on Tory faces there were growing flickers of concern. Choosing Boris Johnson as their leader suddenly wasn’t looking like such a good idea. Boris is a good-time party guy. The sort of man who can be the life and soul of the Olympics and be relied on for any upbeat bollocks about Brexit.
But Boris just can’t do the serious stuff. He is levitas incarnate. A man with an unbearable lightness of being. At a time of national crisis, the country wants a man who is willing to put in the hard yards. Who can be bothered to read briefing papers longer than two sides of A4.
What’s more, deep down, Boris knows he is floundering. That he is hopelessly out of his depth. Up till now he’s always got away with somehow coming up with the right words. The master of the glib. A catchphrase for every occasion. Now though, those same words are dying in his throat. They don’t even convince him, let alone the other members of the cabinet. Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove could barely look at him. Liz Truss was just lost in a world of her own. But then she often is.
The pantomime clown with the pantomime hair has morphed into a pantomime villain. Someone even children can identify as inherently untrustworthy. And it’s taking its toll. Over the last few weeks – when he first got round to taking the pandemic seriously – he has aged years. His eyes are red and puffy, his complexion pallid and the bags deepening into furrows. At night he weeps, though mostly for himself. Of all the gin joints in all of the towns in all of the world, why did he have to walk into this one?
This may well have been Jeremy Corbyn’s last PMQs, if rumours that parliament might shut for ordinary business at the end of the week are true or self-isolation for the over 70s is brought in at the weekend. If it is, then at least he can say he went out on a high, for his questions struck just the right tone and subject manner. While promising to work with the government in doing whatever was required, he pointed to some abject failures in the government response. Why couldn’t statutory sick pay be raised to EU levels? Were families really meant to get by on £90 per week? What about those on zero hours contracts? What about those who couldn’t pay the rent? And why wasn’t more being done to test NHS workers – as well as the rest of the population – and provide more vitally needed protective clothing and ventilators?
Unusually, the Tory benches were just as keen – if not more so – to hear the answers. Because up till now most of Johnson’s public announcements have been somewhat on the vague side, and their constituents are just as concerned as Labour’s. Trying to convince the country that the UK’s science was miles ahead of the rest of the world’s science hadn’t been a spectacular success, and it’s often felt like the rest of the country has been streets ahead of the government in its own preparations for coronavirus. Just suggesting that people might like not go to pubs too often is hardly groundbreaking advice. Even if it does help bail out the insurance industry. Important to have your priorities right.
Here Boris unwisely felt himself to be on stronger ground. The government had been doing a brilliant job by employing the nudge economics of such superb super-forecasters as Dominic Cummings and Steve Hilton, who have so far managed to get just about every forecast wrong. The thing was, these geniuses had managed to subvert nudge theory into turning it on its head. Long live the weirdos and the misfits. The model the government was using was to do nothing and just wait until everyone introduced sensible panic measures of their own. Then once the public had done its job for it it, the government would then be nudged into turning it into official policy. Ideal for the Boris with No Clothes, who couldn’t face the responsibility of decision making.
Every question was on the coronavirus and the longer the session progressed, the more Tories began to further self-isolate from Boris. His answers on protective wear, ventilators and widespread testing sounded borderline delusional. How can one man have done so little when NHS staff have been begging him to do more for weeks? The prime minister couldn’t even bring himself to contemplate a possible extension to to the Brexit transition. Imagine it. When the country might be economically on its knees we have a prime minister happy to bankrupt it completely just to keep the right-wing Brexiters on board.
There were no answers on closures of schools either, despite several questions on them. Looks like the plan is to be nudged into doing it later after Scotland and Wales had taken the lead. It won’t be long before cities are in lockdown. A policy many people have already taken for themselves. Lions led by donkeys.