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There’s a scene in the crime film The Usual Suspects in which the investigating agent suggests that you can always tell if a captured man is guilty by how well they sleep in their cell.
“Let’s say you arrest three guys for the same killing”, Special Agent Kujan tells his colleagues.
“You put them all in jail overnight. The next morning, whoever’s sleeping is your man.”
I recalled this observation while watching the former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s two day interrogation by the Covid Inquiry.
When we last saw Johnson earlier this year he was fighting for his political life, lashing out at critics and threatening to take down the Conservative party with him.
Back then the man described by his predecessor David Cameron as a “greased piglet” appeared to not only have trotters, but fangs too.
Yet after losing that fight something appeared to change in the former PM’s demeanour. Visibly older and paler, Johnson initially exhibited to the Inquiry little of the political fight he had previously shown.
Like a guilty man finally able to catch a decent night’s sleep after years of running from the law, Johnson seemed content for the Inquiry to do what they wanted with him.
Opening with a broad, but vague apology for undefined “mistakes” made by his Government, Johnson admitted that not everything had gone well during the pandemic.
Yet when he was pushed by the Inquiry’s lead interrogator Hugo Keith about what exactly those mistakes might be, Johnson immediately sought to deflect the blame onto others.
“Sometimes… the BBC News would have one message from Number 10, then a slightly different one from Scotland or wherever, and I think we need to sort that out in future” he said.
When Keith indicated his dissatisfaction at this obvious attempt to deflect responsibility away from himself, Johnson again prevaricated.
“Were there things that we should have done differently? Unquestionably. But, you know, I would struggle to itemise them all before you now”, he replied.
Such reluctance to identify his own mistakes continued throughout the two days.
When asked about his refusal to take Covid seriously in the opening months of the outbreak, Johnson repeatedly sought to blame it on his own advisers.
Despite his then Health Secretary chairing five separate emergency COBRA meetings about it, none of which he even bothered to attend, Johnson insisted that somehow “it wasn’t really escalated to me as an issue of national concern”.
When evidence was put to him of his own Chief Adviser Domimic Cummings in early February warning him that the Government’s scientific advisers had found that the virus was “out of control” and would soon “sweep the world”, Johnson again sought to spread the blame, saying that “our” mistake was that “we” did not take these warnings seriously enough.
Later when asked to take responsibility for his failure to impose Covid restrictions until weeks after they were recommended to him, he again bounced it onto others, saying that “the Cabinet was, on the whole, more reluctant to impose [restrictions] than necessarily I was”.
Indeed on almost every issue, from Partygate, to the “toxic” culture inside Number 10, and the Eat Out to Help scheme, Johnson point blank refused to take full blame for his own actions.
Such deflection was not always possible, however.
When cornered by Keith on the specific question of whether his own decisions had cost lives, Johnson appeared unsure of what to say, before eventually replying that “I can’t give you the answer to that question… I don’t know”.
At times, these attempts to disassociate himself from his own actions took on an almost otherworldly quality. Shown a report, that he was first handed back in March 2020, suggesting that his then plans to deal with the virus would lead to the NHS being massively overwhelmed, Johnson slipped into an almost out-of-body state.
“I do remember looking at it and thinking there was something amiss,” he told Keith, while failing to explain why he had not actually done anything about this realisation.
When such attempts to plead ignorance didn’t work, Johnson instead resorted to outright denial.
At one point Johnson insisted that by the time of the first lockdown he was fully in “Virus Beating Mode”. This insistence continued despite being shown evidence of him telling his colleagues that they were “killing the patient to tackle the tumour” and “destroying everything for people who will die anyway soon”.
Later, when asked about the extensive evidence of his other comments to colleagues suggesting that Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people” and that they should let it “rip” through the population, Johnson again insisted this was the opposite of his views.
Refusing to let this pass, Keith immediately went to list every example of him saying the very words he had just denied, to Johnson’s obvious discomfort.
Nor was the former PM’s apparent dishonesty restricted to the past. At one point Keith asked Johnson about his written statement to the Inquiry claiming that the Government had “properly discussed” the Eat Out to Help scheme in advance with the Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Adviser Chris Whitty.
Pushed on why he had made this statement, given both men denied any such discussion taking place, Johnson replied that this was merely an “assumption” he had made, adding that he struggled to see how such an important policy would have been “smuggled” past the two men.
His attempts to explain how thousands of WhatsApp messages stored on his phone had somehow been “automatically” deleted prior to the start of the Inquiry were similarly unconvincing.
Getting Away With It
The Inquiry’s interrogation of Johnson, while at times subtle, was also brilliant in exposing his fundamental dishonesty and lack of seriousness.
Over the course of two long days, Keith and his fellow interrogators patiently set out the evidence of a Prime Minister who was deeply out of his depth and unsuited to the task of leading the nation.
Little genuinely new was revealed, due to the fact that most of the evidence had already been put to previous witnesses. Nor was this a Paxman-like interrogation in which the Inquiry sought to nail the former Prime Minister to the wall for his misdeeds.
Yet the cumulative impact of the Inquiry’s questioning of Johnson was in some ways all the more damning for its calmness.
The former PM was quietly asked to take responsibility for a series of decisions which collectively resulted in the unnecessary deaths of many thousands of people. By the end, his refusal to take such responsibility, and his dishonest attempts to deflect it onto others, was so obvious that there remains little for the Inquiry to now do other than to simply set that out.
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Yet while the Inquiry is already exposing Johnson for the deeply flawed individual he is, what it cannot do is fully expose how such a man was ever allowed to be in such a position of power in the first place.
Throughout his political career, supporters and commentators have attributed an almost supernatural ability onto Johnson for getting away with things.
Yet what this Inquiry has helped to demonstrate is that this supposed ability originated not in the man himself, but in their own indulgence of him.
While a “greased piglet” may be able to evade our grasp, somebody else has to be willing to apply the grease to him in the first place.
Such greasing was evident throughout this Inquiry. Throughout these sessions, evidence has repeatedly been shown of his colleague’s private despair at his lack of seriousness, incompetence and dishonesty. Questioned by the Inquiry, some of these same witnesses queued up to list those same faults on the record.
Yet at no point has any of them explained why they continued to serve him despite those faults. Nor have any of his many previous media supporters bothered to explain why they were content to ignore these flaws for so long.
For decades this negligent enablement of Johnson allowed him to rise from the ranks of a disgraced junior reporter to the most powerful politician in the country, without almost anyone stopping to question whether such a rise was either justified, or wise.
For most of that time the consequences were limited. While embarrassing to those directly involved, his fabrication of quotes as a journalist, or dishonesty about his extramarital affairs while a Shadow Minister, had little impact on the wider world.
That all changed once he became Prime Minister and was charged with leading the country through Brexit and then Covid. Over the course of two major crises Johnson’s deep flaws were fully exposed to the whole world with momentous and tragic consequences.
While the Covid Inquiry can put the evidence of those flaws firmly on the record, it cannot fully explain why those around him allowed him to get away with them for so long.
The search for that more shameful truth will have to take place elsewhere.