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Boris Johnson at press conference

Boris Johnson at the coronavirus press conference, Photo: Picture by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Even his own MPs are now losing faith in the Prime Minister’s ability to manage the second wave of the pandemic, writes Sean Ledwith

Viewers watching the Downing Street briefing tonight could be forgiven for wondering whether they were watching Boris Johnson or Matt Lucas. Two weeks ago, the latter’s spoof opening to Channel 4’s Bake-Off brilliantly skewered the Prime Minister’s bumbling and disjointed presentation style. Unfortunately for the British public, only yesterday Johnson delivered a press conference in Exeter that was only marginally less incoherent than Lucas’ version. Today’s briefing was hastily arranged to try to undo some of the damage caused by a glaringly incompetent national leader.

Incredibly, less than a year ago, Boris Johnson was celebrating a crushing victory at the polls that gave him an apparently armour-plated 80 seat majority. Last week, Tory backbenchers were threatening to unseat him unless he complied with their demands regarding the management of the ongoing pandemic. This week, the same group of MPs have been seeking to curtail Johnson’s use of executive power as he increasingly bypasses parliament for the announcement of new lockdown measures.

Fool of Six

Rarely in modern British political history has a Prime Minister experienced such a dramatic collapse in fortunes. The mounting sense of a national leader who is utterly unfit to cope with a crisis on this scale, even among his own supporters, will only have been exacerbated by another chaotic press briefing yesterday when Johnson bungled a supposed clarification of his own lockdown guidance. Asked about the implementation of the Rule of Six, he managed to contradict the modifications to social gatherings he had introduced only a few days earlier!

In the North East and other areas where extra type measures have been bought in you should follow the guidance of local authorities. It's six in a home and six in hospitality but as I understand it not six outside.

Hours later, Number Ten was forced to issue a humiliating apology, albeit in the weasel-worded style that has become the norm for this disaster-strewn government:

Apologies, I misspoke today. In the North East, new rules mean you cannot meet people from different households in social settings indoors, including in pubs, restaurants and your home.


Newcastle council leader, Nick Forbes, rightly slammed the Prime Minister for the shambolic manner the new regulations have been introduced in that region with minimal consultation with local decision-makers and confusing messaging for the public:

There is an alarming level of incompetence and complacency at the heart of Government. We are still awaiting the final list of regulations and premises that will be affected, yet we are expected to have local guidance and enforcement in place by midnight tonight. How can we protect our communities and businesses when we don’t have the answer to these questions? The shambolic way these new regulations have been announced has undermined their very purpose of protecting public health.

Johnson was responding to a question for clarification following another car-crash interview by one of his cabinet team earlier in the day. Skills minister Gillian Keegan was flummoxed  on Radio 4 when she was put on the spot about the guidance for groups in the North East eating outside together: I don't know the answer to that question but I'm sure they can find out the answer to that question. I'm sorry I can't answer that question. I'm sure there are many people who could. I don't represent the North East.' In other words, if you don’t know what to do, Google it!

Warnings ignored

With this level of incompetence at the senior level of government, it is no wonder the UK is on course for a disastrous second wave of the pandemic. Yesterday, new infections reached their highest point in the entire span of the crisis at nearly 7000 cases.  Today’s death toll of over 70 -for the second consecutive day-was the highest since May. It is grimly apparent that the reopening of schools and universities is the main driver of this renewed onslaught by the virus. Dominic Cummings, the malignant guiding intelligence of Team Johnson, has built his reputation as a supposed super-forecaster but was somehow unable to predict that bringing millions of schoolchildren and students back together in proximity would trigger a resurgence of the pandemic.

Only a few weeks ago, the teaching unions and parental pressure groups were warning that full reopening of classrooms was reckless and irresponsible considering the ongoing threat of the virus. Predictably, these protestations were brushed aside by this hubristic government and its cheerleaders in the right-wing press. Now one in six secondary schools are reported they are experiencing significant absences by staff and pupils as a result of new infections, and almost 20 million people are restricted by a bewildering variety of local lockdowns in more than 40 parts of the UK.

Boris Johnson should be not be apologising for one act of ‘mis-speaking’ but for the risible failure of his government to aggressively suppress the virus in the summer when it had the chance.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters


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