Right at the beginning of the pandemic, there was intense concern among officials about the health of one elderly female. I was subsequently told by a very senior figure that there was “a lot of worry” the Queen could be killed by Covid, with incalculable effects on public morale and trust in government. The public would ask, so shivered Whitehall, how anyone could be safe if they could not even protect the head of state? This fear was reasonable. We were not far into the crisis before Prince Charles got Covid.
While elaborate precautions were put in motion to safeguard the Queen, someone in government did not get the memo. Or he did receive the memo, but couldn’t be arsed to read it. In mid-March of last year, when staff at Number 10 were already falling ill as the virus rampaged around that rabbit-warren building, Boris Johnson told aides that he was going to carry on with his weekly in-person audience with the Queen. He answered protests that this was sensationally reckless by responding: “That’s what I do every Wednesday. Sod this, I’m gonna go and see her.” On the retelling of Dominic Cummings, he had to explain why going to see the Queen was “completely insane” and asked what the prime minister would do if he caused her death. Only then did Mr Johnson finally relent. “He basically just hadn’t thought it through.”
“The day the prime minister threatened to bump off the Queen” is a pretty remarkable story and yet it has not generated headlines as large as might be expected. Perhaps this is because people’s capacity to process information about his bonkers behaviour has reached its saturation point. It may also be because this revelation came in a BBC interview with Mr Cummings, whose testimony is discounted by some or dismissed altogether by others as the bitter effusions of an ex-aide on a revenge quest against a man he describes as “ludicrously” unfit to be prime minister.
My view is that you do not have to like Mr Cummings or find his motives unimpeachable to treat him as a useful source of information about how Mr Johnson thinks and operates, especially when being his real self out of public view. Ask yourself: does this story ring true? Is the account of recklessness with the health of the Queen consistent with everything else we know about the prime minister’s approach to dealing with the virus? Has he not displayed a repeated failure to “think things through”? A “sod this” attitude has surely been a consistent theme of the tragically bungled handling of the pandemic, especially when he has been confronted with hard decisions he doesn’t want to face or expert advice that conflicts with his own prejudices or assessments of his personal interests.
In the initial phase of this crisis, it was “sod this” to attending meetings of the Cobra emergency committee because he was too busy dealing with his divorce. Then it was “sod this” to agreeing to a timely first lockdown because that involved accepting how serious the situation had become. Lo scorso autunno, it was “sod this” to the scientists when they warned that the disease would accelerate wildly out of control if he didn’t impose a second lockdown. And “sod this” to acting in time to save lives because he had made a baseless promise that the nation could revel through a “normal Christmas”. It was also “sod this” to the fatality rate because the data suggested to him that the median age of those claimed by Covid was 82. “That is above life expectancy,” he flippantly declared. “So get Covid and live longer.” He went on to say: “I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff.” That’s something Number 10 can’t deny because it was recorded in WhatsApp messages.
Bringing us right up to date, a chorus of voices cautioned against “freedom day” because it was a dangerous gamble to release England from virtually all lockdown restrictions when the number of new cases was going up and a third of the population was still unvaccinated. To those warnings, it was another prime ministerial “sod this”.
While the deployment of vaccines has weakened the link between getting the virus and being hospitalised by it, the third wave is taking further lives, will leave more people with debilitating long Covid and is causing severe disruption in critical areas of the economy such as food and fuel supply. Many people have not been “liberated”. They are effectively back in lockdown because they have the virus, fear catching it or have been told to self-isolate. It is such a mess that it even inspired Keir Starmer to produce a rare zinger when he dubbed Mr Johnson “the super-spreader of chaos”.
Il primo ministro, the chancellor, the health secretary and the leader of the opposition are among those who have been forced to self-isolate in recent days. It is symbolic of how distant we still are from normality that Mr Johnson celebrated the second anniversary of his premiership quarantined at Chequers. This episode has been accompanied by another example of his “sod this” style of governing. After Sajid Javid announced he had tested positive for Covid, the prime minister and the chancellor were pinged as close contacts. Number 10 then announced that Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak had been magically selected to participate in a supposedly random “daily testing” pilot scheme that exempted them from self-isolation. They only did a reverse ferret after a furious backlash among MPs and the public, especially the bereaved. Trying to wriggle out of the rules was not idiosyncratic behaviour, but entirely characteristic.
This further undermined government messaging when it was already in a terrific muddle. Tear off your masks. Keep on your masks. Return to the office. Don’t go back to the office. If you’re pinged, it is up to you to decide what you do. If you’re pinged, you must isolate. Be careful. Go clubbing. The explanation for Mr Johnson’s behaviour often offered by his friends is that he is reflexively antagonistic to restrictions because he is an instinctive libertarian. This is a poshed-up way of saying that he loathes rules and has a career history of breaking them. If he were a backbencher rather than prime minister, he would almost certainly be among the anti-lockdowners who depict any sensible precaution as a step towards turning us into East Germany. But his “libertarianism” is too kind an explanation because it overlooks the way he has lurched between chronic prevarication and cavalier impetuousness throughout the pandemic.
Another explanation you hear, and this also often comes from people close to him, is that he wants to be loved and hates to disappoint the public. So having promised a “freedom day” he couldn’t bear not to deliver it. Yet most of the general public didn’t want this version of liberation. Polling has been consistent throughout the pandemic. The great majority of voters have faulted the government not for being too draconian about imposing restrictions, but too slack. In terms of his personal approval ratings, the prime minister’s most positive period started at the beginning of this year when he was impelled to pay more heed to scientific advice and act with greater sobriety by the appallingly high death toll of the second wave. A YouGov poll published to coincide with “freedom day” suggested that almost twice as many people believe it wrong to remove nearly all restrictions as think it a good idea.
The “sod this” approach to tackling a deadly virus is not popular. It does, tuttavia, satisfy the appetite of a minority strand of opinion that is disproportionately influential over this prime minister. Hostility to restrictions has been noisily proclaimed by a faction of Tory MPs and their allies in the rightwing press. Many well-placed sources agree that their ferocious opposition to a pre-emptive “circuit-breaker” lockdown last autumn exerted a grip as powerful as it was baleful on the prime minister. Had he not gone ahead with the “freedom day” for which they had clamoured, Mr Johnson feared a monstering at the hands of the rightwing media and a big revolt by Tory MPs, a chunk of whom turned up in the chamber of the Commons ostentatiously refusing to wear masks. On Mr Cummings’ account, the prime minister regards the Daily Telegraph, for which he once wrote a highly remunerative column, as “my real boss”. That puts everyone else in their place. It is to this minority faction of opinion, not to parliament or the public, that he sees himself as answerable.
Few can claim to have got everything right about this pandemic, but none has been more consistently wrong than the threat-deniers, lockdown-haters, mask-defiers and let-it-rippers. Yet this is the one group to whom the prime minister is never capable of saying “sod this”.