First published 20 November 2020 on Lit
With Bozza back in quazza, attempts to reboot his premiership after the removal of Mr Cummings are going poorly. Boris isn’t poorly this time. But, alas, the same cannot be said for the country. Nearly three weeks into a four-week “lockdown”, hundreds are still dying from Coronavirus every day, with nearly 20,000 new positive cases recorded in the last 24 hours.
The Prime Minister claimed his own isolation was proof that the “test and trace” system was working. No sooner had he put out this line than his chosen head of NHS Test and Trace, Dido Harding, declared that she too was “self-isolating” (is there any other kind?), having also been in contact with someone who had tested positive. So on Wednesday we were treated to the sight of the Prime Minister — who spent the summer encouraging everyone including MPs to return to their workplaces — being beamed in from home for PMQs.
A home-bound Johnson might reflect on whether he made the best use of his time on the outside. Until the weekend, Mr Johnson had been busy meeting with both current and candidate members of his inner circle, where it appears a fight had broken out between a chicken and a squirrel. (The “Mirror chicken” was one of the now-sacked Lee Cain’s previous jobs, while a squirrel was what Cain and Cummings cruelly had in mind when dubbing Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, “Princess Nut Nuts”. How lucky we are to have such people in government.)
The topic of discussion in these meetings was how best to improve Test and Trace, support people unable to work during the pandemic, protect the sick and the elderly in care homes, and plan the logistics of mass vaccinations. Wait, sorry. What am I saying? According to reports the main topic was how best to manage Mr Johnson’s public relations in order to get his political fortunes back on track.
As the Sunday Times reports, quoting a ministerial aid: “Boris wants to be loved and he saw that Allegra had helped Rishi become popular.” “Allegra” is the new press secretary, Allegra Stratton. “Rishi” is Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer. And “Boris” is the vacillating love slave we have the pleasure of relying on for our survival. The same report notes that the Cummings row may have influenced when, and indeed whether, Johnson called a second “national lockdown”. So the case for Johnson’s psychodrama affecting public health and the pandemic is as solid as a coffin nail.
It was a busy weekend across the House. Labour’s Keir Starmer was on Desert Island Discs trying too hard to prove, against general concern, that he is a human person with feelings. “I know who I am”, he said, which is a relief, though some listeners may not have been able to say the same. His chosen discs included Beethoven, that “Football’s Coming Home” song, and Stormzy. (One can imagine Sir Keir nodding solemnly as he reviewed his box-ticking selections.) At around the same time, the former shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, was defending the Chinese dictatorship on a Zoom panel, alongside speakers who had denied China’s atrocities against Uyghurs in Xinxiang.
Having praised the “great line-up of speakers” before the event, Ms Abbott claimed she “had no idea” they held these views. Ms Abbott’s ignorance is always plausible, given that she seemed to think Uyghur is a place, and her general bewilderment. And in her defence, if that’s the word I want, it’s true that in her speech to the panel about “Sinophobia” and western belligerence towards China, she didn’t say a word about these atrocities. (She had, however, spoken on a similar panel a few weeks earlier, this time with the exiled King Jeremy, and had proposed in 2015 that Mao Zedong did “on balance more good than harm”, which adds some context.)
This disgraceful episode is a reminder, if one were needed, that Labour’s claim to be the party of anti-racism and workers’ rights is not only exploded by its treatment of Jews and whistleblowers. (Call me old-fashioned, but I think “zero-tolerance” on antisemitism, if it’s based on any principle, has to extend to kicking out anyone who is iffy on the existence of concentration camps.)
Speaking of principles, it was hard to spot any during the “Hello, I must be leaving” sub plot this week over Mr Corbyn’s suspension. Keir Charmer began to feel the strain between his promise to restore Labour party “unity” and to kick out antisemites — a conflict anyone could have predicted. Again, it’s so nice to see politicians fighting over principle, rather than public relations and their own interests, and who have their priorities in order during this pandemic.
But some of us can’t help but notice that our entire political class — a shabby thing at the best of times—has once again left us the “sick man (or person) of Europe”, with the highest Covid death toll on the continent. Any inquiry into what went wrong, and how our politicians failed to do the basics, would have to begin with at least one pre-existing condition: the health of both political parties.
Each incubated and then surrendered to a batty fringe that took over when the supposedly responsible actors were exhausted and had left the stage. Both presented voters with a fleet of chancers and mediocrities, “leaning together, headpiece filled with straw”, who collapsed to make way for opportunistic frauds and crackpots. These fantasy merchants offered magical solutions to our problems, with dreams of past glory and promises of a future utopia, and delivered us into our current nightmare. To really “get control of the virus” we need to take back control of our politics, and build up antibodies against corrosive delusions. We should start today.