The government appears to have taken the unusual decision to run a mañana culture. I’ve no doubt ministers and civil servants are working flat out on solutions to the coronavirus crisis, but so far they don’t appear to have a great deal to show for their efforts. It’s as though everyone is looking at someone else to come up with the ideas. Other countries, such as Denmark and New Zealand, that were four weeks behind us in reporting their first cases, are now streets ahead of us in their health and financial bailout preparations. The UK motto appears to be “keep calm and muddle on”. Something may turn up. Though it probably won’t.
It’s not just Boris Johnson’s fundamental lack of plausibility that is the problem. At Thursday evening’s daily Downing Street press conference, he seemed to have totally lost the plot. After a few days of trying to do “serious face”, he had reverted to his default end-of-the-pier-show act; the Archie Rice who could no longer even entertain himself. Back were all the familiar smirks, knowing nods and third-rate gags. He sounded tonally deaf; totally at odds with the mood of the nation. When the country wants a man of substance, we get a man of straw.
Coronavirus was back to being some kind of comic-book super-villain. We’d give it a good smack on the nose, dig deep for 12 weeks, and then everything would be more or less back to normal. First we take coronavirus, then we take Brexit. Both were things that could be “got done”. It’s not even as if Boris intentionally means to be glib. He’s desperate to be seen as a great leader. It’s just that he’s fundamentally psychologically flawed. He genuinely can’t bear anything that is too real or too meaningful as it exposes his narcissistic wound that can never heal. So he has to deflect, make light, minimise. Anything but empathy. That costs him far too much.
What most of us wouldn’t give for a Gordon Brown or a John Major right now. Or even a Theresa May. Words I thought I’d never write. At least there was an integrity to her incompetence: you could trust her to do the wrong thing for the right reason. It’s the rest of the cabinet too, almost all of whom can be trusted to fall to the occasion.
Take Gavin Williamson’s decision – some might argue a touch late – to close all schools in England at the weekend. Now it’s not as if this can have taken the country’s favourite fireplace salesman by surprise. He’s had a good six weeks to prepare for an event that everyone but him knew would sooner or later be inevitable. Yet at last night’s Downing Street press conference, he was seemingly blindsided by some of the most obvious questions, such as the details of how children of key workers would remain in school – which members of staff would be the designated teachers – and even what jobs qualified as key worker status. Gav, you had one job. One job.
Rishi Sunak’s £330bn Tuesday bailout was rather better received – the scale of the package suggested there was some form of intelligent life in cabinet – but after two days of going through the fine detail, those MPs who were still coming to the Commons had come to the conclusion there was rather less to the chancellor’s plan than had met the eye. So the former business secretary Greg Clark was granted an urgent question to find out if the Treasury had any better idea of what it was doing than any other department.
The chancellor wisely chose to duck the session. It was left to the most junior treasury minister, the unfortunate John Glen, to take the hit. Right from the off, he had the air of the condemned man.
At times he looked on the verge of tears. Like so many others, he hadn’t come into Boris’s government to have to deal with this kind of shitshow. He was just an average bloke who happened to have got lucky and had been looking forward to the Brexit crack. Even though he had never actually believed in it.
MPs from all sides piled in. This just wasn’t good enough, said Clark. Businesses were facing collapse. People were being laid off. Action was needed now and workers could be given cash handouts through the PAYE system.
“Um… er…,” Glen mumbled, desperate for some divine intervention.
Even Iain Duncan Smith got in on the act. Normally there’s nothing he likes more than to grind down the most vulnerable members of society, to make them sweat for every penny they get out of the state. For him, poverty is a life choice for the congenitally idle. But now he was overwhelmed with compassion. He was determined that the whole purpose of the Universal Credit system he had introduced had only been to make it easier for people to receive their payouts. So what he wanted was for the Universal Credit taps to be turned on full so that the money could flow. Along with milk and honey. It was one of parliament’s greatest Damascene conversions.
But IDS had set the tone, and soon every Tory was standing shoulder to shoulder with the opposition benches. The revolution was being televised and it started here.
“I will make sure the Treasury hears MPs’ concerns,” Glen said tartly, his tears of self-pity having given way to something more like passive aggression. He had been sent out to take a beating in the Commons, and someone in the Treasury would get it in the neck when he got back.