You could sense the impatience in Boris Johnson’s voice. He had come to prime minister’s questions prepared to take Keir Starmer on over the government’s new willingness to break international treaties. But the Labour leader was one step ahead. There was no need for Labour to get involved at this stage, when the EU and large sections of the Tory party were already up in arms at the prospect of the UK acting like a rogue, failed state. Let others do the dirty work for him.
Instead Starmer chose to direct all six of his questions to what was on many people’s minds: the ongoing mystery of why the government’s world-beating track-and-trace system was sending people on a 700-mile round trip on the off chance they will be able to get a coronavirus test whose results will probably be lost. Who was responsible for this mess?
“Of course I take responsibility,” Johnson said, before quickly seeking to allocate blame elsewhere. The real problem was that the scheme was just too successful: thousands of people who had been encouraged to get tested had done just that and now there wasn’t the capacity in the system even though there were 75,000 unused tests each day. It was time to go back to the old days when fewer people were tested and all those contact tracers could get back to making just one or two calls a week.
To be fair to the prime minister, he was a little less rubbish at PMQs than the week before. But not by much. It’s almost as if Boris is wilfully coming to the Commons unprepared as a point of principle. With no answers to any of Starmer’s questions, all Johnson could do was demand to know why he was being criticised.
Not for the first time, Keir tried to talk Boris through the basic format. He got to ask the questions and the prime minister was obliged to answer them. Or not. “The government can’t even manage a basic level of incompetence,” Starmer said. Johnson assumed the Labour leader had made a slip of the tongue and had meant to say “a basic level of competence”. But Starmer had it right first time. Just a basic level of incompetence would be a vast improvement on what the government was currently delivering.
But still it niggled Boris that Starmer had not mentioned his plans to rewrite the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. So he just let rip in a demented monologue. The fact was that when he had said the deal was oven ready, what he had meant was that it was ready for total incineration.
The deal that he had negotiated, forced through the Commons with less than three days debate and on which he had fought and won a landslide election victory had actually been a very bad deal. A complete turkey. Rather than protecting the Good Friday agreement, it had undermined it. So it had always been understood by him – if by no one else – that it would have to be renegotiated before 1 January. It was one of the more bizarre outbursts in a session that is becoming more surreal by the week. It can’t be long before the prime minister is required to take a 700 mile weekly drugs test. For performance diminishing drugs. MPs from both sides of the house could only look on in bewilderment.
There wasn’t a great deal more sense on offer at the Downing Street press conference later in the afternoon, when the prime minister announced the new lockdown measures that Matt Hancock had failed to mention in his statement the day before and had released to the media in the evening instead. In theory, the message should have been straightforward. Social gatherings were to be reduced to groups of six, unless you happened to be on a bus or in the pub in which case different rules applied.
But Boris being Boris just couldn’t help screwing things up. He announced the creation of a new vigilante squad of Covid marshals – presumably recruited from the track and tracers who had spent the last few months sitting next to a silent phone – who would be ready at a moment’s notice to burst in to people’s homes and arrest any stray grannies or grandads that had broken “The Rule of Six”. And yes it was going to be tricky for him too, as it would mean he couldn’t see all of his kids at the same time either. Even assuming they wanted to see him too.
So what you’re basically saying is that Christmas is cancelled, several journalists observed. Boris looked panicked. Only in July he’d said everything would be back to normal by Christmas and he hates to be the bearer of bad news. So he just started making things up. Forget the failed app and all the other broken promises, he said. Forget that he had once dismissed mass testing as a waste of time.
Now he was going for broke with Operation Moonshot. By Christmas everyone would be able to give themselves a daily test and then people could do what they wanted. Think of it like a pregnancy test, Boris said. Though hopefully with fewer positives than he usually got. Hell, theatres could even do tests on the whole audience and just allow in those who were negative. It was a completely bonkers piece of pantomime.
It took Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance to add a touch of realism. We were a long way off either a vaccine or mass testing. The coming autumn and winter months were going to be hard. Future lockdowns might be needed. Yet again, on a day when the country had been crying out for leadership and direction, Boris had gone missing in action.