I’m really hoping you can help me crack an enigma, a mystery that has me completely stumped. In order to explain the puzzle, I need you to close your eyes for a minute or two and let your mind roam free.
Try to imagine this. A highly independent and authoritative report into how we managed the outbreak of the pandemic has just been published. It’s a report prepared by serious and respected TDs from all parties, including Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. There was no fighting or point-scoring as they prepared it, and they all agreed on its findings.
Let’s imagine that here are just a few of the things it said:
“In 2020 our country did significantly worse in terms of Covid deaths than many countries...
“Our pandemic planning was too narrowly and inflexibly based on a ’flu model which failed to learn the lessons from SARS, MERS and Ebola...
“We accepted in practice that herd immunity by infection was the inevitable outcome, and we made a serious early error in adopting this fatalistic approach and not considering a more emphatic and rigorous approach to stopping the spread of the virus...
“It was also a serious mistake to get to the point where community testing was stopped early in the pandemic. A country with a world-class expertise in data analysis should not have faced the biggest health crisis in 100 years with virtually no data to analyse…
“The initial response to the crisis also exposed some major deficiencies in the machinery of Government…
“Scientific accomplishment was hampered by operational inadequacy …
“The disproportionately high mortality rates that people with learning disabilities and autistic people have suffered throughout the pandemic has highlighted the health inequalities faced by this group…
Just imagine it, if you can. That’s just a tiny bit of a long report, written in careful, almost civil service language. Imagine that report landing on the newsdesks of our newspapers, or into TV or radio stations.
Do you think a report like that, that excoriated government failure and was written by some of its most heavyweight backbenchers, would dominate the news agenda here? Do you think the government might be under heavy pressure over it? Resignations, even?
Well, not in the UK. Not now, and it seems, not ever. At least while Boris Johnson is around.
It’s astonishingly damaging — in any normal democracy it would be fatal. And all the more because it was written by a committee of the parliament (actually two committees combined into one) that had 12 Conservatives (a majority) among the 22 members. If they’d wanted to whitewash, they had the votes to do it.
Instead, they published a report that said — about Britain in the 21st century — “Do not attempt CPR” notices were issued inappropriately for some people with learning disabilities, which was completely unacceptable. Whatever about the other catastrophes and mistakes they made, how can any government minister in any civilised modern country stand over that? In a pandemic, some people are expendable. The more vulnerable they are, the more likely we are to just let them die.
Boris didn’t react to the report. He was on holidays. Pretending to be Winston Churchill the painter. He posed for a photograph wearing a painter’s smock like Churchill used to wear, holding paint brushes and squinting at a canvas.
He was staying at the time in a villa owned by Zac Goldsmith, a member of his government. Goldsmith is a member of Johnson’s government despite losing his seat at the last election in Britain — Johnson made him a life peer and retained him in government. I suppose lending the prime minister your house for the holliers — a house that would normally cost £25,000 a week to rent — was Mr Goldsmith’s way of saying thank you.
Johnson was in the villa, of course, pretending to be Churchill in repose, while his entire country was in the middle of a major crisis. Queues at petrol stations were matched by empty shelves in most of the major retailers because Britain was going through what is likely to be the first of many supply chain issues as a result of Brexit. Indications are that Britain is going to have a very difficult Christmas.
He managed to avoid mentioning any of the supply chain issues, any of the disasters of the pandemic, and any of the terrible mistakes his government has made. Instead he waffled and joked, in a speech that was described by the (right-wing) Adam Smith Institute as “economically illiterate”.
I’m telling you all this — and don’t even get me started on his unscrupulous and dishonourable behaviour on the Northern Ireland protocol — because at the heart of it all there is a mystery that I cannot fathom. I thought, after a lifetime of experience, I understood politics, but all this stuff has me completely stumped. Because the mystery is this. How does he do it? How has he survived? He’s still thriving.
The latest YouGov opinion poll gives the Tories an eight-point lead over Labour, and a recent poll conducted for the Observer newspaper (immediately after the Labour Party conference, which was by all accounts a good one) also showed the Tories ahead by 4%.
Every time he stands up in public he has to be fact-checked and is always found wanting. He lives a life which is self-indulgent in the extreme and appears to be utterly devoid of any sense of moral value. He doesn’t even believe in the core ideological values of the party he leads.
And (unlike former US president Donald Trump, for example) he leads a country that places a decent store on education and has a largely well-educated population. He’s the leader of a divided country, although it’s nowhere near as polarised as the US is. It’s a country that has proved again and again in the past that it’s capable of uniting around great causes. It’s a country full of brave and resilient and resourceful people.
And they seem willing to forgive Boris Johnson almost anything. All the lies, all the mismanagement, all the self-indulgence. His country is at serious risk of economic collapse, and they’re buying his line that it’s all just part of the transition to greatness. He’s already been re-elected once and looks likely to be re-elected again. If you can explain it to me, send me a postcard. Because I just don’t get it.