“Now is not the time,” gibbered the prime minister, “to take our foot off the throat of the beast.” Its throat? A lot of people feel like they’ve been living in the beast’s colon for most of the year. Still, see you guys in tier 4 in January.
Incredibly, the above was not even the worst line of Boris Johnson’s Thursday evening press conference. Johnson is unaccountably celebrated as a brilliant prose stylist but frequently spouts the sort of sub-inspirational shit you might see slapped on a photo of a crossroads on Instagram. This outing was a case in point, as the prime minister intoned: “Your tier is not your destiny – every area has the means of escape.” Wow. I want to say “#makesuthink”, but I’m going to go with: “Then tell us what the means of escape is! Why does everything have to be a bleeding ring quest?”
Unfortunately, the government doesn’t even trust its own MPs enough to divulge what precisely will set your area free. And, as I mentioned last week, many of you will be quite bored with taking lectures in personal responsibility from a man who doesn’t even take personal responsibility for an unspecified number of his own children.
For now: out of the frying pan, into the burns unit. Last month, before Johnson belatedly got around to announcing the national lockdown in a Halloween performance of quite terrifying ineptitude, over 50% of England was in tier 1. When the nation “emerges” four weeks later, it’ll be more like 1%. Boris Johnson has 99 problems, but the Isles of Scilly ain’t one.
Almost the entire country will now be in the toughest two tiers – which are themselves not the tiers you might have known and loved the first time round. There have been “modifications”. Furthermore, there is the situation of areas such as Kent, which went into this lockdown in tier 1 but which Johnson has deemed will come out of it into an even harsher version of tier 3. Like Taylor Swift’s, his tiers ricochet.
It is fair to say the reaction to yesterday’sannouncements is widespread WTF-ery. If you are able to follow all the news obsessively, these latest developments might not come as a shock. Since the beginning of our plague year, Johnson’s failure to grasp any of the nettles at any of the points they needed to be grasped has arguably long set us up for a bleak midwinter. And a bleak early winter, and a bleak late winter.
There’s a reason the Office for Budget Responsibility places the UK on the naughty step of charts comparing not just European death tolls but also economic damage, despite the country having had to endure some of the most stringent restrictions in the continent. And it’s not because it’s “just one of those things”. Johnson’s government has fallen between every stool. Worse, they were so hell bent on not having to learn from the first wave via any sort of inquiry, that many of the mistakes have since been repeated in the second wave. If there is a third wave, expect yet another runout for all your favourites.
As I say, lots of hyperengaged people may already feel they knew what “the end of lockdown” would look like. If, however, your main preoccupation has been with keeping your head/business/life above water, you might have taken a very different signal from the government over the past few weeks, when you’ve had a second to pay attention. You might have assumed that the thing which followed the lockdown would be – how to put this? – less lockdowny. You might have assumed, what with all the deceptive performative fussing over Christmas and so on, that we would return on 2 December to something better than we left on 4 November. You might even remember successive promises of Johnson’s to “turn the tide” in 12 weeks (March), and a “return to normality by Christmas” (July).
Alas, all of these little white lies are a function of Johnson’s character. From the very start of this pandemic, the prime minister has confirmed he is temperamentally unsuited to delivering bad news. Instead, he has opted to deliver bad news hopelessly belatedly, and good news self-defeatingly prematurely. The effect is to make people feel constantly cheated, even when the news is better than might have been expected had their expectations been managed more fairly or reasonably. Hence why, up and down the country today, people feel led up the garden path. If they watched Thursday’s Downing Street press conference, they will know to expect more of the same as we move forward. No sooner had Johnson explained how your tier wasn’t your destiny, than chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, explained that even the new tier 2 would only hold infections level. Tier 1 would result in a rise.
Naturally, there is a certain irony in seeing Tory MPs who voted for Johnson now outraged to discover that he won’t tell them the truth. Had you given a look to camera this morning every time an MP said something like “the prime minister needs to be straight with people”, you’d have had whiplash before breakfast.
Much worse are the ones still quietly making excuses for his character failings, like he’s some special case. Even at his lectern, Johnson seems to cast himself as the chorus to events, as opposed to the guy who decrees them. All the sighs and the winces and the “I wishes” – we are for ever being encouraged to see things as happening to the prime minister, as opposed to at his behest. He lacks the leadership qualities required to own his response.
No doubt his last defenders would claim that Johnson is simply giving people hope. If so, then he is demonstrably going the wrong way about it. Johnson has become a specialist in dashing hopes falsely raised (by him). Yet hope is hugely important, now more than at any time this past year, and a better leader – even an adequate one – should be able to inspire without misleading.
Alas, Johnson continues to confuse giving people hope with placating them with fibs, only to let them down later, like he was always going to have to anyway. The pattern is not unfamiliar. There are women in several London postcodes to whom the prime minister once gave hope, only to later turn out to have been making false promises. Hang on to your lunch, but perhaps we’re all those women now. We expect him to do this; we expect him to do that. So we became hopeful, after a fashion. When the time comes, of course, Boris Johnson doesn’t think he can be reasonably expected to do the things he suggested he could – indeed, he protests that he never really suggested them anyway.
So yes, this is the way he has always been. At the time of the leadership election, there were all sort of open-minded Tories who voted for Johnson, apparently convinced the personal was not political. That was a misapprehension. Your tier might not be your destiny – but in his job, your character always is.
• Marina Hyde is a Hlcarpenter.com columnist
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