It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. And it sure as hell isn’t going to be the person who created the mess. Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for giving press conferences in his new £2.6m media suite is diminishing by the hour. Yesterday it was Michael Gove’s turn to clean up after Boris with a half-hearted non-denial denial about not having been in the room to hear the prime minister remarks about “letting the bodies pile high”. You can always depend on the Govester to make a bad situation worse when it suits him to cause trouble.
On reflection, No 10 could see that choosing Mikey had been a mistake. What was needed was someone more bland. Someone who could be trusted to send an audience to sleep. Someone who could be guaranteed to know nothing about anything an interviewer was likely to ask. So today it was the turn of the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, to be thrown under the bus of the morning media round to explain away the latest twists and turns in the ongoing Tory sleaze and alleged-indifference-to-the-number-of-Covid-deaths sagas.
LBC’s Nick Ferrari got in first by asking Coffey straight out what was more embarrassing? The prime minister talking about letting the bodies pile high or spending £58K over the normal allowance on doing up a flat? She began by trying to pretend she wasn’t at all sure what Ferrari was talking about. The prime minister had said he had never uttered the words “letting the bodies pile high” and he was a man whose word could be taken on trust. The very idea that Boris might lie about anything was clearly absurd. Even when he had told her it was her talent and charisma that had drawn him toward appointing her to the cabinet.
OK, said Ferrari, sensing he was going to get nowhere with the bodies or “letting the virus rip” because Coffey could genuinely claim complete ignorance. Back to the £58K. It wasn’t a great look when so many people were losing their jobs or being put on furlough. “Er,” the minister mumbled. She didn’t have any of the details about how the money had been spent. But Ferrari did. Boris had bought wallpaper at £840 per roll. And he had spaffed £3K on a Lily Drum table and £9.8K on a Baby Bear sofa. Whatever they were.
Now Coffey began to panic as even she could see this was a bit excessive. Johnson had had to spend much more time in the Downing Street flat than other prime ministers, she guessed, conveniently forgetting to say where all these other prime ministers had slept when they had been in residence at No 10. And it was only right to fork out loads of cash on expensive furniture when you’ve got a baby because then you can waste a lot of time trying to prevent him from getting his sticky hands all over it. But would she spend £5.9K on a rattan armchair? Good God, no. She rather preferred the John Lewis look. This was not Coffey’s finest hour.
Though things were about to get even worse when she was interviewed by Justin Webb on the Today programme. Now her answers consisted of little more than surly “don’t knows” when it was pointed out to her time and again that Johnson had broken electoral law by failing to declare the loan within a month. Something which, Webb observed, he had failed to do on 10 previous occasions. So he had form for it. “He just wanted to be prime minister,” she said unhappily.
Coffey went on to say that throughout the pandemic Johnson’s sole motivation had been the public good. If he had a fault, it was that he cared too much. About whom, she didn’t elaborate. Though she now appeared uncertain enough about her short-term future to be certain that Boris would never have dreamed of saying anything about bodies piling high or letting the virus rip because if he had done he would have consulted her first. It was just former advisers and media outlets making mischief. Johnson was concentrating so hard on making the country a better place it was believed he had personally taken the time to phone three newspaper editors to brief against Dominic Cummings.
“So is Dominic Cummings a credible witness?” Webb asked. Coffey replied that the only impression Dom would have made on the public would have been his disastrous press conference in the Downing Street rose garden the previous summer. The one that, at the time, Boris and the entire government had insisted was an entirely credible account of his Durham safari and day trip to Barnard Castle.
Inside No 10, Boris groaned. There were drawbacks to letting Coffey out after all as there was always the danger that someone who knew nothing might accidentally tell the truth. Not that she was making assertions about Dom’s integrity, Coffey added. Though she was. Just as she had inadvertently called Johnson’s trustworthiness into question. It was a race to the bottom in the battle of the unreliable narrators. Still, looking on the bright side, it would be a while before she was asked to do the media round again.