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In the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the naked emperor is led through the streets for some time before the townspeople finally have to admit that the suit they’re told to believe exists, in fact does not. Initially shamed by their own deference to authority, the pretence eventually becomes too much for them to bear.
I thought of this tale this week as we watched a procession of former Government officials appear at the Covid Inquiry to talk about Boris Johnson’s disastrous handling of the pandemic.
These officials, some of whom not only served under Johnson, but actively worked to make him Prime Minister in the first place, were now entirely united in their admission of his unsuitability for leading the country through the crisis.
Over the course of multiple days we heard how Johnson initially dismissed the coming pandemic and refused even to leave his study in order to chair emergency meetings about it. So unfazed was Johnson by the potential for mass deaths among his citizens, that in early February he decided to take a ten-day holiday, during which there are no records of him communicating with his officials even about the catastrophic wave of infections heading for our shores.
In fact, although this was denied at the time, newly released messages show that Johnson was content to allow the virus to do its worst, saying that it should simply be allowed to “let rip” through the population, even if it resulted in large numbers of deaths.
In records released by the Inquiry, officials recall that Johnson believed that the country was being “pathetic” about Covid and should just have “a cold shower” and get over it. In one exchange he is recorded as sympathising with the idea that the virus was simply “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.
Apparently relaxed about the idea of hundreds of thousands of potential deaths, Johnson attempted to retro-fit the theory of ‘herd immunity’ in order to justify it. Under this theory, the virus would be allowed to rip through communities before eventually reaching such a level that a natural immunity would arise that would protect the population from a second wave.
There were three obvious problems with this theory. The first was that nobody knew at that time how much immunity would actually be created by the virus and how long it would last. The second was that even if it did create lasting immunity, the number of infections required for that to happen would be so large that there would also be a truly unprecedented number of deaths. The third and related problem was that a wave that large would also totally overwhelm the NHS and cause even more deaths through people being unable to receive treatment for other conditions.
Yet far from seeing this as a criminally negligent plan, Johnson instead viewed it as heroic.
In a speech in February 2020 he compared his plan to that of Clark Kent ripping off his spectacles and emerging as a superhero to save the world from the shackles of lockdowns.
“Humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other,” Johnson boasted.
At this time Johnson openly mocked the responses of other nations to the crisis. According to the former Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara, Johnson took an “unbelievably bullish, we’re great at everything” attitude to the pandemic, which involved “laughing at the Italians” for locking down their country. Meanwhile, basic scientific concepts such as infection rates had to be repeatedly explained to he Prime Minister, who failed to grasp them, MacNamara confirmed.
Yet despite the obviously disastrous impact of his plan, and his inability to grasp the basic science, almost nobody inside Government appears to have stopped to work out whether it was in any way feasible. As one of Johnson’s senior aides told the Inquiry this week: “One of the things we were missing in early March  was a simple ‘here’s the path of the infection and here is NHS capacity’ and putting those two lines together.”
So to put that into context, the UK Government had a deliberate plan of allowing mass infections of a deadly virus and nobody inside Downing Street thought to construct a simple chart to work out whether the country’s health service could actually cope.
Although led by Johnson, this culture of negligence extended well beyond him. In one record released by the Inquiry, the former Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill is recorded as advising the Prime Minister to instruct the public to hold “chicken pox parties” in which they actively sought to catch Covid from each other. In other records the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is referred to as “Dr Death” due to his plan to encourage people to attend restaurants during the pandemic, despite the evidence of the increase in infections it would cause. Far from seeking to stop this deadly virus in its tracks, the entire machinery of the British state appeared focused on ensuring its survival and spread.
Throughout, these newly-released records also demonstrate that Johnson’s main concern was not the citizens he was elected to protect, but his former employers in the newspaper industry. In evidence submitted by his former communications chief Lee Cain, he records how Johnson was dissuaded from taking tougher measures against the virus, including a so-called ‘circuit-breaker lockdown’ due to opposition from his former employers at the Daily Telegraph.
In one excerpt Cain recalls how “[Johnson] expressed significant concern, stating our policies were causing us to lose the backing of generally supportive elements of the media,” noting that this was triggered by the Telegraph featuring a favourable interview with the leader of the opposition. According to some estimates, these delays resulted in tens of thousands of additional deaths from the virus.
Johnson’s close relationship with the media also caused “specific concerns” in Downing Street about possible illegal motivations, according to his close adviser Dominic Cummings. Cummings told the Inquiry that he feared there was a “corrupt” relationship between the Prime Minister, the Evening Standard newspaper and its then editor George Osborne. The owner of that paper, Evgeny Lebedev, was famously handed a peerage by Johnson despite concerns from the security services about his relationship with his father Alexander, who is a former KGB agent.
In the days before the first Covid lockdown Johnson met twice with Lebedev in meetings for which no minutes were recorded. Cummings told the Inquiry that officials feared money had been corruptly “funnelled” to Lebedev’s paper by the Prime Minister. Although not questioned about this further, this appears to reference a Government scheme first reported on by Byline Times, in which unspecified amounts of subsidies were handed to leading newspapers during the pandemic.
The Inquiry has also revealed details of what is described as a “toxic” and “misogynistic” culture inside Downing Street. Pushed on his own role in this culture, Cummings strongly denied it, before being shown messages in which he referred to a senior woman as a Stiletto-wielding “c***” who he wished to stick in handcuffs and drag from the building.
Negligence and Deference
With each day that passes more and more shocking details emerge about Johnson’s negligent and disgraceful management of the pandemic. Yet for anybody who has even vaguely followed Johnson’s long career, none of this should be a surprise.
From his early days as a journalist, through to his time as London Mayor and beyond, Johnson had a long record of deception, dishonesty, selfishness and outright negligence. In 2011 as London was literally burning with its worst riots for decades, Johnson initially point-blank refused to return to the city from his foreign holiday and only finally relented some days later after a wave of media criticism.
Later, when the Independent Office for Police Conduct sought to investigate his relationship with the businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, whose company received tens of thousands of pounds in funding thanks to City Hall, they found that all communications and records of the relationship had apparently been wiped, despite rules stating that they should have been retained.
Similar dishonesty and recklessness was evident in his relationship with Evgeny Lebedev and his father. In 2018, following a Russian assassination attempt in Salisbury, Johnson who was then Foreign Secretary left an emergency meeting of NATO in order to attend the Lebedev family villa in Italy, after ditching his security detail. Despite reports that Lebedev senior had offered to act as a “back channel” to Putin, Johnson insists the meeting with Lebedev was purely social.
There are many other egregious examples of Johnson’s complete unsuitability for high office, all of which were hiding in plain sight long before he ever crossed the threshold of Number 10. That he was not only allowed to cross that threshold anyway, but was actively cheered over the line while doing so, is a damning indictment of our country and our national press.
The combination of negligence and class deference which allowed a charlatan like Johnson to ever become Prime Minister should shame our country. In few democratic nations could a man as obviously incapable and unworthy as Johnson be allowed to rise to such heights for so long without everybody noticing who and what he really was.
Of course not everyone was taken in by the deception. There were many people who spent years pointing out the emperor’s nakedness, only to be dismissed or ignored by those who insisted there really was an brilliant but invisible suit on his shoulders all along.
Yet what the Covid Inquiry has shown us is that when somebody like Johnson is allowed to rise to such heights, the British system not only seeks to protect them, but actively enables them in their worst instincts. It is not, as some are now trying to persuade us, that Johnson was somehow an unfortunate aberration of our political system. He was, in fact, a tragic encapsulation of everything that is wrong with it.
Of course in less serious times the sort of institutional negligence and deference that Johnson exhibited, may have led to mere drift and inaction inside Government.
The unforgivable tragedy of the Johnson disaster is that it led to the deaths of many thousands of people who might otherwise still be with us today.